That first moment of serene and utter disbelief came early during my first encounter with the musical Ragtime. As an owlish little Edgar, our precocious narrator, matter-of-factly ticked off subplot after subplot during the prologue of this sprawling saga of turn-of-the-century America, I noticed I was counting them. When he hit seven and still hadn't finished, I can still recall writing "How in the hell...?" in my notes for the show.
As it turns out, I needn't have worried. In their intrepid adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel, playwright Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens deftly fashioned a single, fascinating theatrical tapestry out of an improbably large number of such narrative threads. In doing so, Ragtime poetically, convincingly depicted how friction between layers of the social strata at the dawn of the 1900s fomented misery, innovation, revolution and art, along with needed cultural change.
If some longstanding walls begin to come down among the various socioeconomic classes in this sweeping musical drama, that would match similar activity taking place between Duke's Theater Studies, Music and Dance departments as well: According to publicist Miriam Sauls, the three have never collaborated on a similar project up to now. Their first joint effort was two years in the making and reportedly was prompted by a single student's senior excellence project. The three departments work with co-presenters Duke Chamber Players and Hoof 'n' Horn to populate the oversized orchestra and cast.Duke faculty and Manbites Dog Theater founder Jeff Storer directs, with musical direction from music professor Anthony Kelley, choreography by Barbara Dickinson, sets by Torry Bend and costumes by Derrick Ivey. The show runs through April 15, with performances Thursdays–Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, April 15, at 2 p.m. Tickets are a steal at $5–$10. —Byron Woods