Ragtime, the National Book Award-winning novel by E.L. Doctorow, is a bleak and sprawling survey of life at the beginning of the 20th century, encompassing both the era's giants (J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman) and the unfortunates left choking on the dust of modernity's march. At its center are the stories of three families struggling to cope with a changing world. Ragtime, the 1998 stage adaptation, attempts to cram every twist and digression of the novel into a 2 1/2-hour musical. It's an ambitious project and, as a tribute to a spectacular work of fiction, a complete failure. The creators' attempt to represent the entirety of the novel onstage makes for a breakneck pace and some truly execrable dialogue seeking to form tenuous bridges between passages drawn from Doctorow's prose. As a subversive work of musical theater, though, Ragtime is a rousing success. The show makes up for its lousy book with a tremendous, piano-driven score by Stephen Flaherty, drawing heavily from the verbal and melodic tricks of Sondheim, which Portland Center Stage's huge ensemble (23 actors and a 10-piece orchestra) delivers impressively.
The $11 million Broadway production's flashy eye candy, including a functioning Model T driven onstage, drew jeers and bankrupted its producers. PCS, like every other arts organization in America, lacks the cash for such luxuries. Its designers opted for minimalism: an enormous, bare set adorned only with a mammoth pair of sliding doors on which Peter Maradudin's lights cast bleak shadows through a machine-made haze, giving the set an air of urban oppressiveness. On the empty stage, Ragtime feels more like a passion than a pageant.
The greatest achievement of the musical is granting much-needed pathos to the character of Coalhouse Walker—a black piano player who responds to the trashing of his car by a gang of white volunteer firefighters by forming a revolutionary terrorist organization—for whom Doctorow shows little sympathy. Broadway veteran Gavin Gregory assaults the role with smoldering fury. His two big numbers are crushing. He is the face of defeated aspiration, of the American dream destroyed by careless cruelty. We may like to pretend, as we enter the new century, that the troubles of the last are buried; watching Coalhouse, you know they're anything but. He's still out there. Don't fuck with his car.
Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays, noon Thursdays. Closes Nov. 1. $24-$68, $20 rush tickets available.