Just what the Doctorow ordered: EPAC presents apropos production of ‘Ragtime’

By on May 1, 2019

Yolanda Dwyer (left) and Randy Jeter are principals in the massive cast of “Ragtime” at Ephrata Performing Arts Center. The show runs through May 11. (LNP file photos)

 

In the western foothills of Maine, Ross Swain can be found in dining rooms and eateries doling out ragtime tunes on his piano. “Have Piano — Will Travel” is the motto stretched across the coffee cup bearing the entertainer’s likeness, name, and phone number. Almost every day that cup holds coffee or tea for me as I write.

Swain is an old friend, and my truest connection to ragtime music, the piano-specific genre that is his specialty. When we met two decades ago, I was more attuned to Janis Joplin than Scott Joplin, and Swain’s dedication to the notes on the page was something new to me and fascinating. I was a jam band enthusiast. He’s a musical tactician, putting loads of time, and all his effort, into learning a song note by note before it would hit anyone’s ears. Sometimes, when visiting his lakeside camp punctuated with sounds of calling loons, he would knock out a song for his friends to enjoy. Eventually and through no overt pressure, Swain advanced my knowledge of ragtime beyond “Maple Leaf Rag” and “Jelly Roll Blues.”

But I never thought of ragtime as a movement. I never considered the music style an emblematic achievement with ramifications reaching throughout all of early 20th century American society. That is until I witnessed “Ragtime” on opening night, Thursday April 25, at EPAC. With resounding skill and talent, the result being an immediate standing ovation at the musical’s conclusion, the players on the Sharadin Bigler stage created a moving portrait of America’s values and tribulations at the beginning of a new century, a time of massive changes.

Sean Young as Tateh and Maya Hartz as Little Girl pose for the photographer during the dress rehearsal for “Ragtime” at Ephrata Performing Arts Center in Ephrata on Monday April 22.

 

‘Ragtime’

Based on the classic American novel of the same name, “Ragtime” the musical is the story of the white, upper class family of Mother (Stacia Smith), Father (Preston Schreffler), their Little Boy (Noah Woods), Grandfather (Gene Ellis), and Mother’s Younger Brother (Rick Kopecky) who are living an idyllic life in New Rochelle, N.Y., until Father heads off to be a part of an expedition to the North Pole. While he is gone, Mother finds a baby abandoned outside their home. The small child is the offspring of Sarah (Yolanda Dwyer) who is offered sanctuary by Mother. We soon learn the baby’s father (who has been secluded from this information) is musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Randy Jeter), who leaves the bright lights and action of the big city to find his true love.

During his search for and re-wooing of Sarah, Walker runs into bigotry and racist oppression from a group of white firefighters who vandalize his new Model T. Sarah is slain. Seeking retribution and finding none through the judicial system Walker turns into a vigilante and enlists disenfranchised black men, and Mother’s Younger Brother, to his cause and call for justice. He is gunned down upon his surrender.

While this is going on, our story is intermingled with the tale of Tateh (Sean Young) and his Little Girl (Maya Hartz), Latvian immigrants to the U.S. whose boat just so happens to cross paths with Father’s in “Journey On.” Tateh is wise, weary, and wanting of a better life; he survives by finding a nickel any way he can and ultimately leaves New York City. He briefly encounters Mother on his way to Lawrence, Mass., where he finds hard work in a textile mill. After a tumultuous stay at the mill, Tateh escapes and sells a handmade flip-book of pictures to the train conductor. This is the budding of a career in something that will be called “moving pictures.”

Fictional characters and historical persons mix in “Ragtime.” During “The Night that Goldman Spoke at Union Square,” Emma Goldman (Tricia Corcoran) orates about the plight of the American worker, like Tateh in Lawrence. Harry Houdini (Sean Deffley) floats in and out of the show as a symbol of immigrant prosperity and harbinger of fate. Booker T. Washington (Michael Truitt) serves as a mediator for Walker and expositional voice on race at the beginning of the 20th century. Socialite and performer/model Evelyn Nesbitt (Heidi Carletti), whose real-life story may be nowhere near as funny as presented in this production, serves as an example of popular culture.

The show’s centerpiece for the genre it is named after is the number “New Music.” The first act song features Schreffler, Smith, Kopecky, Jeter, and Dwyer accompanied by the entire cast of 34 other actors and actresses whose voices are all strong and perfect. Considering the ticket price, every audience member underpaid simply by enjoying this masterful rendition of a song written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.

This is the show to see for fans of live music. The voices assembled for EPAC’s “Ragtime” are big and talented. Smith’s voice shines in the opening (after the prologue) “Goodbye, My Love,” with Young’s and Schreffler’s powerful voices shining right afterwards in “Journey On” to set the show with a strong start. Jeter and Dwyer shine in “Wheels of a Dream.”

As serious as this show can be, it does make an effort to be downright hilarious at times. Ellis and Carletti help lighten the mood and are perfectly punctual in their delivery. The number “What a Game” about baseball (and immigration and changing social status quo) is hilarious and masterfully performed, and choreographed.

Written for the stage by Terrance McNally and directed locally by Edward Fernandez, “Ragtime” is based on the novel by E. L. Doctorow. The novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1975 and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1976. The original Broadway production of “Ragtime” won four Tony Awards in 1998, including Best Book of a Musical.

“Ragtime” creates echoes of what was ordinary in society 100 years ago, yet it is as timely now as it has ever been by tackling the topics of sexism, racism, poverty, immigration, and privilege.

At one point in the show the Little Boy asks, “Why is everyone so angry?” His question smacks of reality today. This socially charged musical serves as both escapism from, and a mirror for, 2019. Once again, EPAC has the uncanny foresight to provide “theatre that matters.”

To purchase tickets for the show, which runs through May 11, visit ephrataperformingartscenter.com.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

Rick Kopecky (mother’s younger brother), Stacia Smith (mother), Noah Woods (the Little Boy), Preston Schreffler (father), and Gene Ellis (grandfather) at dress rehearsal.

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