In old New York
Ragtime has been with us for nearly 30 years, starting with E.L. Doctorow’s best-selling novel of 1975. The story is a tapestry of life in New York between 1907 and 1912—a time when blacks had few rights; Eastern European immigrants lived in filthy tenements; and the upscale suburbs were white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. Illusionist Harry Houdini, industrialist Henry Ford and labor organizer Emma Goldman were part of the mix.
Director Milos Forman made Ragtime into a film in 1981. A Broadway musical—based on the novel, not the film—arrived in 1998 and picked up Tony awards for book, score and orchestration. The musical has touched down twice in Sacramento: on a tour in 2000 and last summer at Music Circus. Both were huge, professional shows in venues with more than 2,000 seats.
Ragtime now moves into community theater at the Woodland Opera House. This production is still enormous, with more than 30 professional and rookie actors in period costumes, plus nine musicians and a conductor. The venue seats a few hundred, as opposed to thousands, but it’s a historic theater built in 1895. My arms got goose bumps as I gazed at the 1900s costumes on stage and realized that 100 years ago, people in clothing just like that were sitting where I was seated, watching shows on the same stage.
The story—in which the paths of wealthy whites, Harlem blacks and Jewish immigrants crisscross repeatedly—works beautifully here, as before. The funeral scene that ends the first act moved several in the audience to tears. Director Jeff Kean sets up gorgeous visual tableaux to symbolize the huge opportunities and blatant discrimination of the times. James Wheatley (as a cool black pianist), Martha Kight (as angry Goldman) and Bob Cooner (as Tateh, a versatile Latvian Jew who ultimately prospers) stand out in the large cast. The show also incorporates huge projections of period photographs from the Library of Congress, made possible by a grant from the Glide Foundation.
However, serious problems crop up in the balance between the sound system, the orchestra and the singers. Some singers aren’t heard clearly, and these are songs in which the lyrics are critical. In addition, some scenes in the second half don’t fully blossom in dramatic terms. Nonetheless, this is a far more interesting show than most community musicals are, and it rewards the viewer on many levels. Kudos to the Woodland Opera House for undertaking this very ambitious and meaningful production.