Friday, November 24, 2017
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Themes in Stage West's 'Ragtime' still resonate today

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SPRING HILL — The haunting musical Ragtime is set at the turn of the century. But by the end of the show, the audience may be wondering, "Which century?

The problems depicted in the musical at Stage West Community Playhouse seem eerily familiar: fear and loathing of immigrants, a woman yearning for independence, racist public officials, trigger-happy law enforcement, impassioned social Democrats, celebrity worship, ruthless oligarchs and more.

But it's the turn of the 20th century, with the optimistic hopes and occasional successes amid all the social chaos, political upheaval and hatred that linger more than a century later.

It's the stories of three families and the famous people they encounter and their mixing and mingling with one another.

There's the white, upper-class, Protestant, generically named Family: Father (Brady Lay, Bernstein in The Little Shop of Horrors), who joins Admiral Peary's expedition to the North Pole and expects everything at home to stay exactly as he leaves it; Mother (Sharyn Beach, Velma von Tussle in Hairspray), whose compassion emerges once she is on her own; Little Boy (Michael Yarin), their impressionable son; Mother's Younger Brother (Keith Surplus, Seymour in Little Shop), who longs for love and a purpose in life, and Grandfather (Ernie Rowland, Norman in On Golden Pond), Mother's aging, complaining WASP father, the personification of late 19th century thinking.

Then there's a Jewish immigrant, Tateh (Brian Beach, Valjean in Les Miserables, Curly in Oklahoma!), who brings his young daughter, Little Girl (Briana Rifino, Hollywood Blonde in Gypsy), to America in hopes of fame and fortune.

And there's Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Jason Mann), a successful black musician who angers the white people who resent his prosperity, brilliance and self-confidence; Sarah (Dorothy Ferguson, Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird), who loves Coalhouse and has his baby but faces out-of-control bigotry when she is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The lives of all these people cross after Father leaves. By chance, the lives of Mother and Sarah become intertwined, bringing Coalhouse into the picture, too. As famous people float through their lives, the three families' lives are changed.

Intellectual inventor Booker T. Washington (Anthony Cromartie, Mary Sunshine in Chicago), anarchist Emma Goldman (Lynda Dilts-Benson, Mrs. Brice in Funny Girl) and the escape artist Harry Houdini (Jay Garcia) inspire them with their accomplishments. Henry Ford (David Stenger, Benny in Guys and Dolls) and J.P. Morgan (Stan Kane, Mr. Mushnik in Little Shop) impress them with their wealth and power. Stage star Evelyn Nesbit (Stephanie Cooper, Gypsy) inflames passions but is ultimately shown as shallow and unfeeling.

The racist fire Chief Willie Conklin (David Stenger) exemplifies much that is wrong in society.

Ragtime is based on E.L. Doctorow's award-wining 1975 novel, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, who together won a Tony Award for their work in Ragtime, and a book by Terrence McNally, who received a Tony Award for this musical and for Kiss of the Spider Woman.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The actor playing Little Boy (Edgar) in Ragtime at Stage West Community Playhouse in Spring Hill is Michael Yarin. Because of incorrect information given to the Times, another name was listed in the preview published March 4.

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