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Theater review: Music is the real star of musical ‘Ragtime’

Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre is closing its season with the epic musical “Ragtime.”

The production fills the stage at North Idaho College’s Schuler Performing Arts Center with big voices, big backdrops and big dreams.

But the real star of this show is the Tony Award-winning music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, which include nostalgic ragtime beats and grand movie-score swells. Steven Dahlke’s music direction was excellent.

Ragtime music marked an evolution in American culture. “And there was a distant music changing the tide,” the characters sing. At the turn of the 20th century, the country was undergoing myriad changes: the invention of the automobile and industrialization, unions, the rise of African-American culture and an influx of immigrants. All are represented in the show.

“Ragtime” follows the story of a white, well-to-do family, a black couple and a Jewish immigrant as they try to navigate the shifting world.

Jessica Skerritt (Mother) gives a genuine performance as the good wife who takes in a young black mother and her illegitimate baby. Her sweet soprano voice is consistent and even soulful at times during her solos.

She represents the new woman, one who makes her own decisions for herself and her family. “There was suffering and now there is penitence. It’s very grand and I’d hoped you see that,” she tells her husband.

Such dialogue illustrates the intelligence of the musical’s book by award-winning playwright Terrence McNally.

John Devereaux is solid as Coalhouse Walker Jr., a black man who suffers injustice at the hands of white men and seeks revenge through arson. He has a strong stage presence, but his character doesn’t really garner sympathy for his actions.

Devereaux and Joann Coleman, who portrays Sarah, the mother of his child, have a nice rapport.

As an immigrant father just trying to provide for his daughter, Dane Stokinger (Tateh) evokes the most pathos, especially during the angry portion of “Success,” when his American dream turns into a nightmare.

The characters’ stories intersect in unexpected ways and are interspersed with monologues by contemporaries such as Harry Houdini (Andrew Ware Lewis) and Henry Ford (Patrick Treadway). Callie McKinney Cabe’s portrayal of the radical Emma Goldman, Monte Howell’s Booker T. Washington and William Rhodes’ industrialist J.P. Morgan are all well done.

The first act is filled with a series of crescendos that build toward the bitter end.

Many of the show’s songs are written to highlight the talent of the performers. “Journey On,” featuring the perfectly blended voices of Skerritt, Kurt Raimer (Father) and Stokinger, makes a strong impact.

The second act, though, feels repetitive and seems to go on too long.

The technical aspects of Thursday’s show were distracting, as the timing was off on some of the light, sound and scene changes.

The choreography by Beth Raimer keeps the 40 performers moving smoothly, although it could use more innovation and polish. “Crime of the Century” and “What a Game!” are fun, humorous numbers.

Costumes by Jessica Ray are well done, except for some awkward wigs.

But “Ragtime,” directed by Kirk Mouser and based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, really is about the music and this pivotal point in American history where anything could, and did, happen: “In the darkness of the dawn – journey on.”

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