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Step in time Flawless direction sets the right pace for 'Ragtime'

The script for "Ragtime," the 1996 musical that lights up the Shaw Festival's Festival Theatre stage this summer, reads like stream-of-consciousness.

On paper, the characters' declamations and observations often succeed one another as apparent non-sequiturs, and with minimal staging instructions.

On stage, however, Jackie Maxwell's flawless direction and Sue LePage's imaginative set design clear everything up and are the prime movers in sweeping the audience through just under three hours of American social history. Maxwell's deft handling of the countless entries, exits and staging give the performance an energy, rhythm and logical flow that cannot be imagined from reading about it.

With the text by Terrence McNally and music by Stephen Flaherty, "Ragtime" is an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel of the same name that paints, with a broad brush, America's social and racial frictions of the early 20th century against the backdrop of the passion for ragtime music simultaneously sweeping the nation.

The core of the drama lies in three ethnic groups: an affluent WASP family known only by the generic names Father, Mother, Little Boy and Mother's Younger Brother; the famed ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. and his girlfriend, Sarah; and the Jewish immigrants Tateh and his daughter, Little Girl.

Supporting roles, giving the drama a gratifyingly wider reach, are such celebrities of the day as Henry Ford, escape artist Houdini, anarchist Emma Goldman, the ultimate social climber Evelyn Nesbit, J.P. Morgan and black educator Booker T. Washington.

What gives the musical its unfailing intrigue and varied texture is Maxwell's handling of the interaction of the three central ethnic groups and the tangential influence of the celebrities.

Coalhouse is played with immense dignity and captivating flair by Thom Allison, who by sheer force of will becomes the center of the show in his thrilling projection of the song "Wheels of a Dream," in which he foresees a bright future for himself, Sarah and their son. Alana Hibbert as Sarah lacks the kind of spark that would help us understand why Coalhouse persists in weekly courting calls.

The song "New Music," sung by the ensemble, is a star in its own right. It's a slow, pulsing number with a memorable melody that exemplifies the entrancing appeal of the syncopated ragtime rhythms.

LePage's set consists of an iron catwalk that spans the stage, and several smaller elevated balcony perches used for brief, almost punctuating contributions from the celebrities. Behind that, varied screen projections add valuable visual intrigue, reaching their expressive peak when a field of rotating gears accompanies Valerie Moore's striking choreography of workers' mechanical motions on Ford's assembly line.

Paul Sportelli's command of the orchestra was crisp, and the vocal ensembles were exceptionally well-prepared and projected with extreme clarity and precise diction.

Intelligent amplification made just about every word audible without loss of directionality. This benefited Patty Jamieson as Mother, who projected her role's increasingly liberal stance quite well. She is not a natural singer, but she got the needed help electronically to allow her important song, "Back to Before," to achieve its forward-looking spiritual effect.

After Allison's powerful portrayal of Coalhouse, there is still plenty of applause to go around. Benedict Campbell successfully grows from an aloof WASP to a sincere advocate for Coalhouse in his final tragic hours. Kate Hennig is convincing in presenting Emma Goldman as a principled reformer, not just a crackpot anarchist.

Evan Alexander Smith as Younger Brother is rather stiff in supporting Goldman, but he develops enough conviction to make his youthful liberal zeal believable. Neil Barclay is properly infuriating as the redneck fire chief who leads his crew in trashing Coalhouse's shiny new Model T Ford. Jay Turvey gives Tateh a puzzlingly softer demeanor than one might expect from a starving artist Jewish immigrant.

"Ragtime" is an intricately complex interweaving of plot, subplots and music that the gifted Shaw company has brought to life in a thoroughly absorbing production.

> REVIEW

RAGTIME

Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

WHEN: Through Oct. 14

WHERE: Shaw Festival's Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

TICKETS: $24-$110

INFO: www.shawfest.com, (800) 511-7429