Three distinct communities, living in their own separate bubbles: The upper-crust Whites. The middle-class and underprivileged Blacks. The impoverished immigrants.
Inevitably, they are forced to interact — for good or for ill.
That’s the story of “Ragtime,” a brilliant historical novel by E.L. Doctorow (1975); a misguided, miscast movie (1981); and a magnificent musical (1996).
It’s also the story of America.
Though the action is set in New York at the dawn of the 20th century (1902-1912), more than 100 years later, the issues remain the same: the even-larger discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots; wage and gender inequality; intolerance for “difference,” whether it be skin color, religion or country of origin; the ugly specter of racism, sexism, classism and the ever-elusive (if it ever really existed) American Dream.
I first fell in love with the musical in 1997, during its run in Los Angeles, before its Broadway opening, where it was nominated for 12 Tony Awards (it won four). I loved the Tony-winning score with its varied and evocative music by Stephen Flaherty, and its ardent and earnest lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. The book was by acclaimed playwright Terrence McNally. I wept several times.
I had the same reaction when I saw it at Moonlight Amphitheatre in 2002, and twice again at other San Diego venues.
Now, “Ragtime” is back at Moonlight, in a huge production, with a cast of 38 and a pit orchestra of 26 (under the assured direction of Elan McMahan).
For the first time, I didn’t cry, despite the shocking timeliness of the piece. It’s that powerful a story.
The cast and singing are wonderful. But director John Vaughan and his design team seem to have been less concerned about the emotional connections among the characters than the “business” around them.
The mega-sized, ever-changing projections (Blake McCarty) are nearly hyperactive, a combination of on-the-nose archival film footage and stills and blurry, arty, amorphous color washes. Even the overarching image, the Statue of Liberty, is abstracted, though squarely framed by the immortal words of Emma Lazarus that sit on a plaque at its base: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” If only.
The three disparate communities are represented by three families.
The privileged Whites are the unnamed, prototypes: the stultified Mother (Bets Malone), stiff-upper-lip Father (Jason Webb), Mother’s restless Younger Brother (Jake Bradford), jaded, change-resistant Grandfather (Ralph Johnson) and innocently prophetic Little Boy (Daxton Bethoney).
The face of the immigrants is the young, ambitious widower, Tateh (Geno Carr, long-time member of the La Jolla and Broadway cast of “Come From Away”), whose Latvian name is too difficult for anyone to pronounce, so everyone just calls him by the Yiddish word for Father. His mostly-silent daughter, The Little Girl (Leila Manuel) also has no name.
But the primary Black characters do.
At the center of the action and the major conflicts is skillful pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Vista native Charl Brown , who cut his theatrical teeth, like his idol, the original star of “Ragtime,” Brian Stokes Mitchell, at San Diego Junior Theatre. Twenty years ago, Brown understudied the coveted role of Coalhouse at Moonlight. Now he owns it).
Coalhouse, a reputed womanizer, falls hard for Sarah (Brooke Henderson), but she feels abandoned and never tells him they have a son. When he seeks her out in New Rochelle (where she and the baby have been taken in by Mother), driving his spanking new Model T Ford, the bigoted local Irish firemen go after him with a vengeance.
Thus begins Coalhouse’s indefatigable quest for justice, which results in two Black deaths — at the hands of law enforcement. An all-too-familiar story.
But what about the relationships? They take a backseat. The strain between Mother and Father as she gains self-confidence and a sense of independence; the palpable love between Sarah and Coalhouse. And a later, more surprising love. They’ve never been less pronounced.
In the midst of all this (there is a lot going on here, reflected in the mélange of musical styles, from the titular rags to waltz, gospel, ballads and anthems), real historical figures appear: the wildly successful Jewish immigrant and famed escape artist Harry Houdini (Evan White); the political, controversial, outspoken people’s rights advocate Emma Goldman (Gerilyn Brault, excellent); the mild-mannered, peacemaking moderate Black author/orator Booker T. Washington (Bill Bland), and two dehumanizing titans of exploitative greed and capitalism: Henry Ford (Johnny Fletcher) and J.P. Morgan (Berto Fernández).
Philosophical perspectives clash and sometimes unexpectedly converge. But justice is not served.
With minimal props and set-pieces (scenic design by Kevin Depinet, lighting by Jennifer Edwards, sound by Jim Zadai, costumes designed by multi Tony Award winner Santo Loquasto, locally coordinated by Heather Megill), two oversized stepladders on wheels are careened around the stage, moving characters and actually interfering with their romantic connections (this is most intrusive in the reunion of Coalhouse and Sarah).
The visual clutter leaves little space for the multiple ideas, people and relationships. No room for tears here, though you might well grieve for our country (the many guises of “patriotism” are on display, as they are in the daily news).
The production boasts some magical moments:
- Geno Carr, in every scene he’s in.
- Bets Malone’s heartfelt, feminist “Back to Before.”
- Charl Brown’s anthemic “Wheels of a Dream” and “Make Them Hear You.”
Clearly, the audience got the messages — and their relevance. They gasped. They cheered. You will, too.
- “Ragtime” runs through Sept. 3 at the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Brengle Terrace Park, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive in Vista
- Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday
- Tickets ($17-$61) are available at 760-724-2110 or online at moonlightstage.com
- Running time: 2 hrs. 45 min.
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.