The late-1990s musical “Ragtime” has never been considered a major, “important” work of American theater, in the way that shows like “South Pacific,” “Rent” or “Hamilton” have. However, a new production of “Ragtime” by the Texas State University Department of Theatre and Dance proves that it should be, and is a must-see for any fan of musical theater.
Based on the historical novel of the same title by E. L. Doctorow, “Ragtime” tells the story of three groups of Americans (a wealthy white family living in the suburb of New Rochelle, a Jewish immigrant and his daughter living in the tenements of New York and respected African-American ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. and his lover, Sarah) in the first decade of the 20th century. Like the novel it comes from, the musical — with a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens — explores the massive social changes America was undergoing at the turn of the century, with these different groups and families weaving in and out of one another’s lives in increasingly deep ways.
When it was first produced, during the relatively peaceful era of the late ’90s, the full impact of “Ragtime” may have been perhaps muted. Seen through the lens of today’s world, though, the power of the text speaks directly to our contemporary problems. As director Michael Rau explains in his program note, “The conflicts over immigration, wealth inequality, women’s rights, workers’ rights, and black lives are as present in this story as they are in our society today. This is a piece that explores the foundations of our society and the fractures that divide America. But most importantly, this musical offers a vision of America that contains both despair and the possibility of a better future.”
Though audiences and reviewers at the time of its initial production may have found such a hopeful ending somewhat trite, in light of the much darker and more disturbing tone of a good deal of the play, that vision of a more just, more united, and more diverse future is a potent message for today.
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The other reason “Ragtime” has a checkered history of major productions is that, quite simply, it is a huge show. The musical demands a tremendous cast, period costuming and a set that can represent dozens of different locations. As Rau and his designers have shown, though, “Ragtime” can (and perhaps should) be stripped down to allow the powerful songs to take prominence over the scenery. Costume designer Marissa L. Menezes does the heaviest lifting when it comes to setting the tone for the time period, while scenic designer Brandon M. Newton’s mobile set of three tall platforms, three stairways and an occasional piece of flown-in backdrop, aided by lighting designer Annalise V. Caudle’s expressive illumination, simply and effectively create a number of evocative settings.
In addition, a stripped-down production works so well here because of the immense amount of talent to be found on the stage. Against a powerful orchestra under the helm of music director Austin Haller, the student performers form a delightful ensemble, particularly in the larger dance numbers created with an historical eye by choreographer Kiira Schmidt-Carper.
Among the main characters, Trevor Berger’s Tateh taps into the humor and sadness of the Jewish immigrant experience without ever resorting to stereotyping, while Emma Hearn as Mother gives a tight, controlled performance that shows a woman undergoing massive shifts beneath the skin while holding herself together on the surface.
The standout performances in this production, though, are Anna Uzele as Sarah and Ben Toomer as Coalhouse Walker Jr. Though each of them has their own show-stopping solo, their duets have a unique power that is equally reliant upon their on-stage chemistry as it is their individual charisma as performers.
Texas State’s production of “Ragtime” is not only a beautiful, moving and important piece of musical theater on its own, but it is also a powerful reminder of an oft-overlooked show that has aged into a crucial commentary on present-day America.
When: Through April 22
Where: Harrison Theatre, Texas State University, San Marcos