Exploring the popular music that named the ragtime era

Living a Ragtime Life Musical review starring Max Morath. Staging director, Neal Kenyon. ``Living a Ragtime Life,'' at the Theatre at Saint Peter's Church, is more than just the title of Max Morath's engaging new entertainment. Playing, singing, rapping, reminiscing, and chronicling, Mr. Morath profiles an American era through the potent pop music that helped identify it. An artist with the skills to match his erudition, he proves once more a genial guide, lively instructor, and delightful performer.

As usual in his compilations, Morath pays tribute to such legendary ragtime composer-performers as Scott Joplin, Eubie Blake, and James Scott. Bert Williams, May Irwin, George M. Cohan, and Irving Berlin (in a special tribute) are also commemorated.

Its title borrowed from a 1900 rag, ``Living a Ragtime Life'' is peppered with important trivia. Morath recalls that Thomas Alva Edison abandoned movies after his sensational ``The Kiss'' and refused to replace the cylinder with the disc record which supplanted it. Nevertheless, Morath pays tribute to Edison's genius and even sings, with a recorded voice, a duet he calls, `` ... Morath and Edison.'' Later on, he plays a duet with a piano roll, a reminder of the technological advance that did much to preserve the output of ragtime composers.

Some of the numbers on the program are accompanied by projections of the lantern slides that illustrated the sheet music of the day. Such a piece is ``The City That Has No Heart,'' with its lachrymose morality lesson, which typified ``the kind of music that ragtime drove out,'' according to Morath.

Yet another projection suggests what may have been one theater management's effort to counter the tide. It reads: ``We present refined entertainment for genteel people.''

Although steeped in the history and legend of a musical era extending roughly from 1890 to 1920, Morath disclaims nostalgic yearnings. He is fascinated with the way things express an era and survive through changing times.

Speaking of money, he says: ``We used to call it `dough.' Now everything has risen and the kids call it `bread.'''

Of ragtime: ``Ragtime is the folk music of the city. ... A folk song becomes a pop song when it starts making money.''

Of travel in the age of flight: ``I'll say this for trains - I never spent three hours circling the depot.''

The patter adds its own piquancy to the performance. But as always with Max Morath, the main attraction is the ragtime music itself. With nimble right-hand filigrees and a wonderfully driving left-hand bass, he personifies the entertainer as performing artist. Which doesn't in any way diminish his occasional digressions into the old soft shoe.

``Living a Ragtime Life'' presupposes snappy dressing. Morath's tailoring is made to measure: dapper gray suit in part one and black velvet dinner jacket in part two. Designer Reagan Cook has accommodated the performance with a discreet arrangement of screens, grand piano, and various objects, with a tiffany lamp to shed its mellow glow.

``Living a Ragtime Life'' (now scheduled to run through Dec. 21) is a holiday treat.

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