"It's exciting to see so much of America," she said by phone from a Sacramento hotel room last week. "It's really beautiful and the cities are so interesting and different. People are friendly."
Her journey into the heart of America is right on point for a show that, as Fox declared grandly, is "about the birth of America." Arriving in Tucson Tuesday for a week's run at the UA's Centennial Hall, the 1998 Broadway musical looks at the nation in the early years of the 20th century. Like the original novel, a 1975 work by literary eminence E.L. Doctorow, the play's broad canvas limns racism, immigration, feminism, class, labor unionism and new technologies, topics none too common on the traditional musical stage. It intertwines the stories of a wealthy WASP family, a pair of black lovers from Harlem and an impoverished Jewish immigrant father and daughter. Their tales foretell not only the coming automobile age and the golden age of movies, but also the new multi-ethnic America.
Fox plays a black woman, Sarah, whose life is derailed by a small racist act that snowballs. Nevertheless, Fox said that the story goes beyond a simple condemnation of racism. She believes the work argues that "we all come from the same place. 'Can't we all just get along?'"
Which is not to say that Ragtime's serious purpose compromises its aesthetics.
"It's a wonderful musical with an important story," Fox said. "The music is fabulous. It has the flavor of the early part of the century. There are a couple of big dance numbers. In the 'Gettin' Ready Rag' the cast dances their butts off. And the costumes are beautiful. The snaps and hooks," she added with a laugh, "are very authentic."
Doctorow's novel pioneered the now-common literary device of inserting of true-life characters into a fictional tale, and Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan and Booker T. Washington all make an appearance in the show.
Doctorow's rich brew of fictional and historical material, written in a jazzy ragtime rhythm, has attracted sterling collaborators. Terrence McNally, the respected playwright who won Tony awards for Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class, wrote the book for the musical. The lyrics are by Lynn Ahrens and the music by Stephen Flaherty. Prizewinning choreographer Graciela Daniele, veteran of Pirates of Penzance and the Annie Get Your Gun revival, composed the show's dances.
Frank Galati, who won a Tony for The Grapes of Wrath, directs the show, which itself won four Tonys in 1998, including prizes for best musical score, book and orchestration.
Lovena Fox's Sarah sings just four songs; her favorite is "Daddy's Son," Sarah's lullaby to her infant boy. She's signed a contract to stay with the Ragtime tour through next summer.
Fox has never regretted her own decision to come to America in 1993. She'd been singing since age 11 back in Vancouver, performed there in Ain't Misbehavin' and was part of an R&B duo called Love and Sas. Right now, besides her Ragtime gig, she's got her own CD out.
"It was meant to happen," she said. "Once I started, I never stopped."
A related panel discussion, The Immigrant Experience: Stories of Coming to America, will take at 7 p.m. Monday, November 27 in the UA Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering auditorium, on the northeast corner of Speedway and Mountain. At 6:45 p.m. on opening night, Tuesday, November 28, Carol Calkins and the Bravo School of Theater in Tucson will host a free Arts Encounter in Room 102 of the Center for English as a Second Language, 1100 E. North Campus Drive, north of Centennial Hall.