Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
The 1890s was a grand time - characterized by mud, warm beer, 25 per cent infant mortality and horses - cracks Max Morath at one point in his marvelous one-man show, "The Ragtime Years."
Opening Wednesday at Ford's Theater for a five-week run, the production is an affectionate look at the 30-year period, 1890 to 1920, that spanned prohibition, McGuffy's Reader, free lunches at saloons, Teddy Roosevelt and old-fashioned morality.
"The past is a great place to visit, but who'd want to live there?" Morath said with a toothy grin. Then he took the capacity audience on a stirring nostalgic tour of those turn-of-the-century times through the popular music of the day.
The focus is on ragtime - and Morath, the pianist, is an excellent interpreter. He plays many of the familiar tunes, including "Maple Leaf Rag," and serves them up with a lilting flavor they don't ordinarily get.
However, the show isn't just music. Morath, 50, who's been playing ragtime since the 1950s, has put together a striking show that serves as backdrop for his sparkling comments on times past and present.
Projected on two screens, the slides, including hand-tinted originals from the celebrated collection of John W. Ripley of Topeka Kan, capture the romance and hard times of the era. There are couples wooing each other and forlorn husbands drinking away their sorrows at the corner pub.
Much of the show's zest comes from Morath's pithy comments about change - or how there is little change today from yesterday.
He calls sporting districts of cities "Disneyland for Adults." Or he celebrates the advances in women's rights. "People in those days thought a woman's place was in the home - sheltered, protected . . . bored," he smiles.
The stage design is simple. There's a hat rack, grand piano and victrola. A painting on a panel suggests a parlor.
Onto this setting comes the lithe Morath, wearing a powder-blue suit and a straw hat. He looks pretty snappy in his oldtime threads.
Most flavorful, however, is the talk about the composers and performers. He makes bows to Bert Williams, the Ziegfeld Follies comedian who always performed in black face, and George M. Cohan (not the usual patriotic songs but a serious song about the meaning of life.)
Some may consider the show corny, but that's to miss the point of this splendid two-hour production. Its look back at the past is a mixture of humor, irreverence and a yearning for simpler times.
Max Morath has the wit and vision to make us see our present by taking a trip to a time period that only seems more quaint.