TINTYPES -- At Arena Stage's Old Vat Room through March 18.

The ads sell the show short. "Tintypes" is billed as a "ragtime revue," which is true as far as it goes: Sure there's ragtime in it, as well as a slow drag, and marches, and songs you heard your parents or grandparents sing to each other and a couple of revels and some organizing songs and a few spoofs. Calling it a "ragtime revue" is like saying a circus has animals.

It is, however, a revue, a string of vignettes that bring to life all the stories we've heard about our immigrant forebears and their neighbors and their betters (plutocrats who believe that anobody born with a million dollars "is as well off as if he were rich," and that "God gave me my money,") and their working-class sages (like the man who resented the extravagance of the rich "less than their lack of taste").

Crisp but not curt, clever without slipping into smartypants, "Tintypes" traipses through the first half of the last century, dreaming and hoping with the immigrant, enlisting with TR, enduring with the black, chasing with the rake, striving with the shopgirl, flirting with the vamp, winning the shopgirl, flirting with the vamp, winning the West, smarting at prejudice, feeling black and (sometimes) blue, seeing through TR's jingoism, rallying withd Emma Goldman, laughing at Vanderbilt, yearning for the old truths, humming the old songs, thrilling at Old Glory.

With five people (six, counting the piano player) carrying so ambitious a two-hour show, it would be idle to single out a thin voice here, an uncertain step there, or to point at stars -- everyone pulls at least his or her own weight. Watch for the rousing "El Capitan," and a captivating vaudeville turn done on one rollerskate.