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— If E.L. Doctorow had written Ragtime as a musical in 1975, instead of a novel, I wonder if Broadway would have staged it. Set in the Progressive Era (roughly 1900 to 1914), the book extols and lacerates the American Dream. The year 1975 marked the end of another era: Vietnam, civil rights struggles, Watergate, Charles Manson, Altamont (the day the music died). Ragtime feels like a summation of both eras and how their energy, each charged by a new music, rose and waned. Most likely mid-'70s Broadway, wanting less inflammatory fare, would have rejected Ragtime's clarion call to combat racism, injustice, and a corrupt power structure.

The musical was produced in 1998, a safe enough distance from the Progressive Era and the '60s to make it almost a nostalgia piece. The novel's a tapestry and obviously had to be cut for the stage. Some omissions irk. Everyone chases the Dream. But most of the famous people living it -- Harry Houdini, financier J.P. Morgan, original tabloid star Evelyn Nesbit -- are miserable. A disturbed Houdini wonders "why he devoted his life to mindless entertainment." Morgan gives a dinner for the 12 most powerful men in America. Rockefeller complains about constipation; Harriman utters "inanities." And, "without exception the dozen...looked like horse's asses."

The musical also misses Doctorow's succinct narrator, especially the asides, as when Sigmund Freud comes to New York an unknown. A decade later he "would have his revenge and see his ideas begin to destroy sex in America forever."

Given the many strands, it's a wonder how much the musical does cover. It's a tale of three families: New Rochelle Caucasians (who dress in Gatsby white and don't have first names); African-Americans Coalhouse Walker Jr., ragtime musician, his reluctant bride Sarah, and their son; and Jewish immigrants Tateh and his young daughter, who come to America on a "rag ship." The times divide the families. Heartache, idiotic cruelty, and a demand for justice reconfigure them.

The backdrop's a cavalcade of scenelets (like the baseball game where Ivy League-educated Father complains that all the players lack class and have immigrants' names) and cameos of Booker T. Washington (who decries protesting) and Emma Goldman, the anarchist who, when she came to San Diego in 1912, got kicked out, but not before thugs tarred and feathered her companion Ben Reitman.

Doctorow writes spare, declarative sentences, with little subordination. The effect resembles the syncopation of ragtime. The novel concludes with the statement "as if history were no more than a tune on a player piano." Composer Stephen Flaherty honors that notion by making ragtime trace the arc of the era: sunlit, chipper tunes in Act One -- even the protest songs glisten -- give way to dissonant variations on the same theme. Similar to the ways Randy Newman warps a Scott Joplin line, ragtime's shadow emerges in Act Two. The score becomes heavy, disillusioned. It can't, as Mother bemoans, go "Back to Before." The piano's player-roll ran out.

The regular bugaboo at Starlight Bowl's the jets roaring into Lindbergh Field. On a busy night -- I think my colleague Welton Jones once counted 73 -- they screech overhead like nonstop dentists' drills. Jets weren't a problem for Ragtime's opening night. But the sound system was. The miking was a mess. Some were too loud. This worked fine for Eugene Barry Hill belting Coalhouse's great anthem "Make Them Hear You" but stole the subtlety from his and Marja Harmon's "Wheels of a Dream" and "Sarah Brown Eyes," among others. Some mikes would switch off, in Sue Boland's case as if by conspiracy: she made Emma Goldman a fiery presence, but then she'd go mute -- just stand there waving her arms as if, after 105 years, San Diego is still afraid of Goldman's message.

Luckily for her, and the production, Deborah Gilmour Smyth's mike worked perfectly. As the Mother, Smyth's beautiful voice and command of the stage anchored the story. John Grzesiak, as Mother's politicized Younger Brother, did quality work as well.

Carlos Mendoza's recreated Graciela Daniele's original choreography with exuberance. The opening numbers fold into and out of each other. When lazy follow-spots found their targets, Eric Lotze's expert lighting enhanced this kaleidoscopic effect.

Starlight's Ragtime looks and moves well. But the amateurish sound design sabotages everything. Terrence McNally's book has many characters tell the story. On opening night, most were muffled. Starlight should heed Coalhouse's advice and make them hear you!

Ragtime, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, book by Terrence McNally, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow

Starlight Musical Theatre, Starlight Bowl, Balboa Park

Directed by Brian Wells; cast: Eugene Barry Hill, Marja Harmon, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Luke Adams, Ted King, John Grzesiak, Ralph Johnson, Sue Boland, Megan Maes, David Beaver, Ian Brinenstool, Halle Hoffman, Paul Morgavo, Ed Hollingsworth, Chris Martin; costumes, K.C. Grulli-Miller and Tanya Bishop; lighting, Eric Lotze; sound, Steve Stopper; choreographer, Carlos Mendoza; musical director, Parmer Fuller

Playing through September 23; Thursday through Sunday at 8:00 p.m. 619-544-STAR.

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