What do Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, and Emma Goldman have in common? Oh, not much, unless you’re talking about Stephen Flaherty’s 1998 musical Ragtime, where these three characters share a stage—and a story. Issaquah’s Village Theatre KIDSTAGE cast vividly brings them and their multicultural compatriots to life in an enthusiastic, clever, and heartbreaking summer production of Ragtime that showcases the talent of Eastside youth. This show is here to take your breath away. Though its dark undercurrents of racism and scandal occasionally overwhelm, Eric Polani Jensen’s fine direction lets all the excitement and color of turn-of-the-century America shine through. Ragtime teaches the power of a dream.
Based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel of the same name, Ragtime opens with a rotating prologue of characters who formally give us a peek into their highly segregated lives. Cold and distant Father recites the history of the rich New Rochelle family, with compassionate Mother and outspoken Little Boy; pianist Coalhouse Walker sings about the jazz underground; and finally, ragged immigrant Tateh shouts out his hope for a better life in a America with his daughter. All three groups quickly become intertwined via Houdini, Ford, and Goldman, especially once Coalhouse’s love Sarah—servant to the Family—is inadvertently murdered at a rally. Alliances form, vows are declared, and fierce words ensue, but ultimately prejudices crumble. Terrence McNally’s script tackles an unwieldy range of topics, hence Ragtime’s limited Broadway success, but the show is filled with Stephen Flaherty’s catchy melodies and Lynn Ahrens’ pleasing songs.
KIDSTAGE’s summer cast capably handles these songs with professionalism and panache. A spirited ensemble takes the stage with gusto for each section, dressed as everything from auto mechanics to peasants, and do a capable job of populating the stage without overcrowding it. As Little Boy, Michael Alinger’s innocent, bespectacled face belies his quick charm and comic timing in “What a Game.” Equally sympathetic is Joell Weill as Sarah. Her sobs in the number “Your Daddy’s Son” tremble beneath sweet notes, the moment only marred during one show by an audience member’s cell phone ring. Jordon Bolton, as zealous crusader Coalhouse Walker, and Jared Rein as Younger Brother, also give passionate performances with strong vocal talent. One feels that each is on the brink of boiling over into insanity, only restrained by the love of their families. Other standouts in the cast include Patrick Ostrander’s cheerfully accented Tateh, strong-voiced Madison Willis as Sarah’s Friend, and twentieth century socialite Evelyn Nesbit, performed with squealing glee by Giselle Gudenkauf.
The production also displays superior technical elements, accommodated surprisingly well by Village Theatre’s intimate performance space. A multifunctional set piece suggests a balcony, firehouse, beach, and jazz club, with benches sliding quietly on and off to supplement the design. Designer Alex Berry’s lighting beautifully washes the stage in color, from sharp shafts of yellow to gentle pink shadows that create a peaceful outdoor atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the sound for this production seems to have some issues. Occasional static from the main loudspeakers was jarring, and oftentimes, a character’s microphone would stop working in the middle of a scene. This created a dilemma for soft-spoken characters such as Mother, whose perpetually calm facial expression made her character come across as unemotional. However, the only other real issue with the show was the question of how to make the cast look as old as their characters—their voices are mature enough already.
Ragtime is a pleasure to see. Its reminders of past racial prejudices cut deep, but its quirky historical references and uplifting songs show that love will carry us through “till we reach that day” when there is peace. History and Broadway buffs, as well as fans of Doctorow’s novel, will be entranced by this show. KIDSTAGE scores again with Ragtime as a toe-tapping, lively summer romp.