Ragtime is a good time

At the Muni, a melting pot of people and dreams

click to enlarge Ragtime is a good time
Photo by Kelly Franklin.
Michael Wallace as “Coalhouse Walker, Jr.” and J’Lyn Hope as “Sarah.”

"You are a complacent man with no thought of history. You have traveled everywhere and learned nothing." Younger Brother, Ragtime

The Springfield Muni Opera's production of the Tony Award-winning Ragtime, the Musical (book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens), is a profound civics and history lesson told through captivating performances and soaring vocals. Tackling themes of wealth disparity, discrimination and cruelty at the hands of those in power, it is also an affirmation of how much since that time, sadly, has yet to change for the better.

Based on the 1975 novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime is told through the perspectives of three families in America at the turn of the 20th century, as it intersects the lives of a wealthy white couple, an African American ragtime musician, and a Latvian Jewish immigrant father and his daughter in pursuit of the American Dream. These fictional characters and their storylines are brought into historical focus by the introduction of real-life figures prominent in early the 1900s, including anarchist Emma Goldman, moguls Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan, educator and reformer Booker T. Washington, controversial entertainer Evelyn Nesbit (whose infamous swing is, unfortunately, absent in this production) and escape-artist Harry Houdini, among others. The melding of real and imagined characters who all share their stories, create a tale of the American experience as diverse as those who lived it.

The opening number is a melting pot of people and dreams as characters emerge to introduce themselves and tell their stories to the audience. Over the course of the show, this theme continues, as music and speech feature prominently and help paint a picture of dreams deferred, hearts broken and lives shattered. Hope and optimism live, too, but it is against an ever-present backdrop of injustice and intolerance. The line quoted at the beginning of this article was met by spontaneous applause and it was hard not to be struck by it.  

With over 30 songs that range from vaudeville, to ballads, to jazz, the cast and orchestra delivers. Michael Wallace as "Coalhouse Walker, Jr." is an effortless and passionate powerhouse; Sara Goeckner as "Mother" is empathetic and refined; Daniel Maughan is riveting as the desperate and frustrated father, "Tateh;" Anna McFarland as "Evelyn Nesbit" brings comic relief that's ultimately wrapped in a tragic package; and Karen Gerdes commands the stage whenever she's on it as "Emma Goldman."  Keagan Eck turns in an honest performance as a curious "Little Boy" and Tanner Stephens as "Younger Brother" is effective as someone searching for his purpose in a frustrating world. Jeremy Goeckner as "Father" and Tiffany Williams as "Sarah" also deserve mention for turning in impressive performances. The entire ensemble brings their best and are supported by a hard-working crew that keeps the scenes moving from one to the next. 

Director Reggie Guyton and his creative team are to be lauded for assembling and leading a dedicated cast and crew, committed to telling this story even while riding a wave of last-minute challenges. Their success is evidenced not only by the resulting production but also by being an inspiring example of the adage, "The show must go on!"  Example: Due to unforeseen circumstances, and within 48 hours of opening night, three cast members were no longer able to perform in either some shows, or the entire run. With 24-48 hours to rehearse and prepare, impromptu understudies took to the stage, without scripts or scores in hand, and showed their mettle. Same for the entire cast and crew who had to adjust to and embrace new performers after they had already formed bonds with and gotten acclimated to their castmates through weeks of rehearsal. And all of this occurred during a tech week with oppressive heat and humidity. I assure you, this was no small feat, but the entire production rose to the challenge. Bravo.

Ragtime continues Thursday, June 23, through Sunday, June 26. Tickets can be purchased here https://www.metrotix.com/events/detail/smo-ragtime or at the box office the night of the show.

Mary Young was born and raised in Springfield has been performing in, producing and directing live theater for decades. She she's done film and voice-over work and performs regularly with the improv troupe The Portuguese Rodeo Clown Company. Their podcast is Radio 680: The Voice of Syracuse.