“Every race or nation that has ever got upon its feet has done so through struggle and trial and persecution,” declaims Booker T. Washington (David Edward Perry) in Terrance McNally’s musical, based on the sprawling novel by E.L. Doctorow. His words ring with optimism whenever America is laid low, and Zeke Rettman’s staging — despite being messy and overcrowded (the cast plus live band would take up half the seats in the theater) — taps in to the angst and hope at the heart of this play about the America we’ve wanted but rarely grasped, and which now feels out of reach. When a conservative businessman (Joe Montgomery) leaves his comfortable home for a year to explore the Arctic with Admiral Peary, he assures his wife (Megan Johnson Briones) that “the world will not spin off its axis in a year.” But this being the 1910s, it does, and upon his return, he’s a frozen caveman to his now radicalized family, which has doubled to include an unmarried black mother (Rachae Thomas), her baby, and her temperamental lover (Kevin Yarbrough). Meanwhile, his brother-in-law (Aaron Jacobs), who once worshipped pop ephemera like siren songbird Evelyn Nesbit (Josie Yount), has taken up labor rights and bomb manufacturing, and a Latvian immigrant (Jon Jon Briones) and his daughter (Danielle Soibelman) confront the obstacles of the American Dream. More passionate than pretty, the dancing and acting rank below the politics, strong singing, and musical director Kelly L. Dodson’s rousing ragtime, a new swinging sound representing the change each character believes in despite getting knocked around more than Jack Johnson.

Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 7 p.m. Starts: Sept. 13. Continues through Oct. 5, 2008

LA Weekly