If it weren't for the early 20th century costumes, you might think that the musical Ragtime, playing through March 20 at Stage West Community Playhouse in Spring Hill, was actually taking place today.
Same hostility toward immigrants, same violence toward African-Americans, same dashed hopes about becoming a big success in America, simply because it's America. Ah, the good old days.
But the beautiful, epic musical is set in New York City at the turn of the 20th century, as a white, upper-class Protestant family revels in its prosperity, with Father expressing his relief that their neighborhood doesn't have any "negroes or immigrants," even as a Jewish father and daughter arrive on a boat from Latvia full of hopes and dreams, and a super-talented black musician/singer named Coalhouse Walker Jr. gains fame and a little fortune for creating the sound of the time, the musical style known as ragtime.
The musical shows the lives of these three groups of people, as well as several true-to-life famous individuals, as they intertwine, telling a story in a series of vignettes. But it is ultimately cohesive, and a deep story emerges during the three-hour show that seems shorter because of terrific performances by director Dalton Benson's stellar 28-member cast and good work by a crew that keeps the action flowing seamlessly, thanks to an innovative set design by Lynda Delts-Benson that works on several levels.
Those accustomed to linear, event-following-event storytelling may be a little confused (or put off) by writer Terrence McNally's unusual structure. In truth, it's more like a television sitcom (Seinfeld, Friends, Modern Family), with several stories going on at once — a snippet here, another there — all finally coming together at the end as the characters' lives emerge, converge, work themselves out and move forward.
The players introduce their characters in the Prologue: Ragtime and physically foreshadow the action, weaving in and about each other, then retreating to their own corners. The story is told mostly in song, with Lynn Ahrens' lyrics advancing the plot and revealing emotions, and Stephen Flaherty's recurring musical themes giving it coherence.
There are many outstanding performances, but several are simply grand: Jason Mann as Coalhouse Walker Jr., the creator of ragtime music, with a booming baritone/bass and an appealing mix of confidence and heartbreaking anguish; Dorothy Ferguson as Sarah, the linchpin of the plot, and Anthony Cromartie, he of the bell-clear voice, as Booker T. Washington, who longs to bring the African-American community into the mainstream but is seen as too compromising by Coalhouse and his followers.
Equally effective are Sharyn Beach as Mother, a dutiful housewife in New Rochelle until she becomes her own person; Keith Surplus, her Younger Brother, an idealist who gets the best lines in the show when he tells off his racist, but well-meaning brother-in-law, Father, played by a strong Brady Lay. Beach's beautifully soaring soprano is touching (Back to Before) as she evolves from resigned acceptance of her life to power and happiness, quite by chance.
Brian Beach is wonderful as the striving but beaten-down Jewish immigrant Tateh, who blossoms in a surprising way. Stephanie Cooper is captivating as celebrity-by-murder, warbler Evelyn Nesbit. Lynda Dilts-Benson is impressive as the socialist Emma Goldman, a compelling figure in history. And young Michael Yarin is adorable as Edgar, whose observations and questions reveal what is going on beneath the polite surface of things.
Kudos also to Sam Petricone, who plays several characters and is fresh and different in each one, a valuable talent for big shows such as this one, and to David Stenger, who plays racist Willie Conklin as the nasty, mean snake that he is, then switches to play a dignified Henry Ford to just as much effect.
Ragtime's music, with its various tempos and sudden changes in time signatures, is difficult, and music director Carol Ballard's six-piece orchestra pulls it off mostly to success. Opening night's first-act sound was a tad loud, but it was adjusted nicely for Act 2 and will likely continue that way. And the costumes — what a triumph for Eileen Bernard and Eileen Katrick and their helpers.
Ragtime is an epic musical that challenges both actors and audience with its complex format and difficult, often painful themes of tragedy and triumph, as in life itself. It is most gratifying to see local community theaters tackling difficult shows such as this and previous ones such as Chicago and Les Miserables (as well as The Drowsy Chaperone and Urinetown at Richey Suncoast Theatre down the road a bit) and bringing something to local audience newer and more innovative than the tried-and-true old war horses of the theater.