To say that Ragtime, the musical version of the book by E.L. Doctorow, is a sweeping story is something of an understatement. In telling the tales of three separate families (with lots of celebrity cameos) in the America of the early 1900s, Doctorow and his adapters, Terrence McNally and music-lyric team Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, are telling us so much about how our country came to be what it was in the 20th century and still is now. The stories may be individual, but they are also universal.
But telling such stories onstage, in a musical, is a daunting undertaking, especially for a community theater. That Venice Theatre’s current production is such a success is a credit to director/choreographer Brad Wages, musical director Jason Brenner, the large and talented cast Wages has assembled and some superior work in costumes and lighting as well (by Nicholas Hartman and David Castaneda, respectively).
To put it as simply as one can, in the opening title number, we meet the main characters: white, comfortably middle-class Americans (played by Chris Caswell, Kim Kollar, Kelly Leissler Jr. and young Eli Schildkraut), immigrant Jews (Joseph Gigli as Tateh, with a young daughter played alternately by Haley Faye Rosenthal and Angela Potier), and the young, black ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Kristofer Geddie) whose love for Sarah (Delores Elizabeth McKenzie)—and for his beautiful model T—sparks much of the drama of the piece. We are also introduced to some symbols of the era: scandalous showgirl Evelyn Nesbitt (Kim Hough), powerful banker J.P. Morgan (David Boza), escape artist Harry Houdini (Tony DeNiro), entrepreneur Henry Ford (Barry Stephens), and political leaders Booker T. Washington (Carroll M. Hunter) and Emma Goldman (Maria Oppenheim).
Cast members of Venice Theatre’s Ragtime.
That’s a full house of people to be moved about and brought to life satisfactorily, and for the most part Wages achieves clarity and compelling drama along the way. There are many highlights in the show, musically and emotionally, and they receive the deserved response from the audience, whether it’s Mother (Kollar) reaching a state of regretful realization with Back to Before, Sarah and Coalhouse hoping for happiness with The Wheels of a Dream, the razzle-dazzle of The Crime of the Century or the just plain fun of What a Game (set to a baseball outing).
There’s almost too much to be said about Ragtime to fit into one review, but I’ll point out the especially memorable performances of McKenzie, Kollar, Leissler, Geddie and Giglia as well as the overall worth of a production that’s far and above most community theater standards. Ragtime is a long show (two hours and 45 minutes), but it’s packed with moments to savor. It continues through Nov. 28; for tickets call 488-1115 or go to venicestage.com.