By David Dixon
Finding historical relevance in the early 20th century
The turn of the 20th century in New York will be coming to Spreckels Theatre in a fresh San Diego Musical Theatre production of “Ragtime.” Adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s acclaimed novel, the plot is a massive epic dealing with three interconnecting stories involving an upper-class suburban family, Eastern European immigrants, and African-Americans.
During a grand prologue, the main characters are introduced to the audience. A New Rochelle Protestant family, which includes a traditional housewife, Mother (Carolyn Agan) and the financially successful patriarch, Father (Cris O’Bryon). As Father goes with Robert Peary on an expedition to the North Pole, a Jewish immigrant, Tateh (Louis Pardo), tries to become successful so he can provide a good life for his daughter.
Also introduced early on is Coalhouse Walker (Jay Donnell), a pianist who plays ragtime music in Harlem. He hopes to win back a woman he adores, Sarah (Nicole Pryor). Just like the book, all the fictional tales eventually link together while real-life legends, including Booker T. Washington (Bryan Allen Taylor), Emma Goldman (Abby Gershuny) and even Harry Houdini (Michael Mittman), appear throughout the production.
Director/choreographer Paul David Bryant has cast more than 40 performers who are featured throughout the nearly three-hour-long musical.
Hillcrest resident Kevane L. Coleman, who is an ensemble member in the Harlem sequences, said the players will contribute to visually spectacular moments. “What is truly amazing about the theatrical event is seeing so many people onstage working together, which can be magical and powerful,” he said. “That is something I am truly looking forward to experiencing.”
The historical drama is not without scenes of extravaganza including a real Ford Model T.
Rhianna Pfannenstiel, a New Rochelle Ensemble member from South Park, cannot believe a historical automobile gets to be at the Spreckels stage. “I love cars, so I’m really looking forward to working with a Model T,” she said. “I have never really had to deal with an actual vehicle as an actor. That will be a first for me.”
Adding energy, besides the pageantry, are several lighter musical numbers with cheeky music and lyrics from Tony winners Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Although University Heights resident Bryan Banville plays the fairly serious role of Mother’s Younger Brother, he still gets to be in a couple of upbeat songs. “There are some very fun numbers such as ‘Crime of the Century’ and ‘What a Game’ that continue to fuel the plot and allow for the spectacle typically featured in a Broadway performance,” he said.
Banville’s character has a socially awkward and troubled personality. Early on, he falls for the infamous entertainer, Evelyn Nesbit (Andi Davis), which leads to a personally embarrassing incident with her rejecting his advances. “While Younger Brother is having trouble finding out who he is and what to believe in, his rejection sparks the anger that grows throughout the night,” Banville said. “Viewers will find some sympathy in how his anger changes him.”
One aspect that the artists believe will be evident in the new staging is relevance for the 21st century. “I think this is the perfect show to put on right now with everything going on with politics, police brutality, racism, gender equality and immigration,” Pfannenstiel said. “It’s really crazy how the events of the narrative take place over 100 years ago, but the problems are still ones that our country is facing.”
Just like Pfannenstiel, Banville is intrigued by the parallels between the time periods. “Seeing so many similarities should make theatergoers question whether we have really grown,” he said. “There has been a lot of progress, but the same core issues remain to be problems for many U.S citizens.”
Coleman believes everyone who visits the Spreckels will be impacted by the experience. “It’s a story that is so pivotal and powerful, especially in 2016. There are so many themes that we still have in today’s society. I think it’s a story that is going to resonate with people when they come to see this in the theater.”
“Ragtime” will be performed at the Spreckels Theatre Feb. 5-21. For tickets or more information, visit sdmt.org or call 858-560-5740.
—A fan of film and theater from a very young age, David Dixon has written reviews and features for various print and online publications. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.