The praises I have for Musical Theatre West's ''Ragtime,'' which opened Friday in at the Carpenter Center, are numerous and indisputable; but I am left searching for something in the midst of its brilliant execution.
"Ragtime," based upon E. L. Doctorow's 1975 novel about unrest at the dawn of the 20th Century, is a portrait of three distinct cultures in the United States: African Americans, represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician; upper-class suburbanites, represented by Mother, the matriarch of a white upper-class family in New Rochelle, New York; and Eastern European immigrants, represented by Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia.
The show's book by Terrence McNally, like the novel, also includes many early 20th century historical figures, from Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, and Booker T. Washington to J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Stanford White, and Emma Goldman.
I am perplexed that I feel I missed something or that something is missing. This collection of performers, the creme de la creme of more than 400 people who auditioned for the show, has the ability to evoke emotion from the audience simply by their powerful execution of the music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.
Director Paul David Bryant, a member of "Ragtime's" original national tour in 1998, has worked on almost two dozen different productions as an actor, choreographer, and director. It is clear that Bryant knows this material inside and out and has led his cast through McNally's vast landscape with skill and passion.
Then there are the rock-solid performances by, well, virtually everyone. I try not to gush, but there really isn't a weak link.
Terron Brooks (Coalhouse Walker, Jr.) a two-time NAACP Award nominee for supporting actor, brings a ferocity and heart that immediately endears you to his version of Coalhouse.
Gary Patent (Tateh), an award-winning actor himself, tears at your heart with his visceral portrait of a man looking to America to keep its promise of a better life.
Jessica Bernard (Mother) with her crystalline soprano and a stoic determination, acts as the spine of the show.
Then there is Brittany Anderson (Sarah) who, with perhaps the most famous song in the show, "Your Daddy's Son," brings down the house. The sheer emotion imbued in each ballad and anthem is overwhelming.
Something is dawning on me as I write this. Perhaps, there is just too much. I love the stirring ballads crafted by Ahrens' elegant lyrics and the ingenious way Flaherty plays with traditional musical forms, but they are numerous. Maybe those numerous anthems, songs with titles like ''Wheels of a Dream'' and ''Make Them Hear You'' aren't enough to fully develop the main characters.
It seems as if the light-hearted songs have been reserved for the characters who, in the novel, add context and color. This doesn't afford us much time with the protagonists that isn't deeply emotional. It isn't immediately apparent as the juxtaposition of the lighter numbers against the ballads creates the desired effect, however after leaving the theater, it begins to fade.
It could be that what works brilliantly in a novel doesn't serve the stage. Maybe, with three separate storylines interacting, it would be best to focus solely on those and dispense with interesting, yet possibly unnecessary metaphor. "Ragtime" is thrilling and relevant and expertly executed and sprawling. It is in trying to be epic that it becomes reductive, but man — those voices!
Musical Theatre West's production of "Ragtime" continues through Feb. 23 at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, 6200 E Atherton St.
Tickets are available at www.musical.org, by calling 562-856-1999 or at the MTW Box Office. Tickets start at $20 for select evening performances.