But despite its prescient survey of such relevant topics as immigration, racism, celebrity and capitalism, the adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's sprawling 1975 novel remains at times a victim of its own grand ambitions. The musical's parade of octave-scaling ballads, for instance, may have a salutary effect on the applause meter. But the swelling songs come to feel as if they are in competition with one another, and so some of the cumulative emotional impact is sacrificed.
And yet, this $4.4 million revival looks and sounds so good, the moments that prompt complaint are ultimately drowned out by sheer musicality. It's the best-sung show the Kennedy Center has mounted in years, and the choral numbers, like the gorgeous "New Music" and gospel-inflected "Till We Reach That Day," fill the auditorium with harmonies nothing short of heavenly. William David Brohn's orchestrations, voluptuously rendered by conductor James Moore and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, spoil you for the evenings to come when you must endure the equivalent of 98-pound-weakling accompaniments.
Dodge's ensemble is exceptionally well balanced; the show has been cast without brand names. (The original featured Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell.) That's not meant to suggest the production is devoid of exceptional turns. The revelatory Manoel Felciano in the role of Tateh, the penniless Latvian Jewish immigrant who ends up inventing a signature American art form, unearths a heretofore unexplored depth and sensuality. (Sarah Rosenthal, as his young daughter, strikes just the right mournful chord.) In the part of Mother, the archetypal frustrated suburban homemaker, Christiane Noll embodies a lovely sense of a trapped woman's awakening. (Christopher Cox, who plays her son, is a sharp little actor, too.) And Jennlee Shallow's Sarah, the story's martyred victim of racist brutality, proves to be a plaintive powerhouse.
For the in-the-spotlight role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. -- whose fiery reaction to Sarah's death propels the evening's central plot -- Quentin Earl Darrington has the necessary vocal artillery; he sings with Shallow a vibrant version of the crowd-pleasing "The Wheels of a Dream." Though he lacks some of Mitchell's menace and magnum-force magnetism, the deficit is turned to narrative advantage. "Ragtime" seems to work a bit better when the intermingling subplots, expertly knitted together by the librettist, Terrence McNally, are accorded equal weight. The notion of the musical's historical scope -- of individuals, fictional and real, caught up in the wave of the American Century -- gets more persuasive support.
The excellent efforts of set designer Derek McLane and lighting designer Donald Holder have ensured that this "Ragtime" evinces visual appeal. The action occurs on and around a soaring piece of architecture that looks like the skeleton of a turn-of-the-century mansion, with an assortment of fixed and movable stairs and ladders. The actors, illuminated in Holder's captivating reds and violets, appear on any of the structure's five levels, reinforcing the idea of a great American beehive.