By MIKE CHAIKEN
An epic tale of three families in early 20th century America, “Ragtime,” has taken over the stage at Connecticut Theatre Company.
Based on the 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow, press materials from CTC explain, “‘Ragtime’ tells the story of three groups in the United States in the early 20th century: African Americans, represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician; upper-class suburbanites, represented by Mother, the matriarch of a white upper-class family in New Rochelle, N.Y.; and Eastern European immigrants, represented by Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia.
The original book is 300-plus pages thick. The creators of the show – music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and book by Terrence McNally— have reduced this epic novel to a two-hour plus musical. For the three leads in the show, the transformation to a stage musical is beneficial to the story.
Justin Henry, who plays Coalhouse said, “When you read the book you have to use your imagination to view the characters. The book can take you through a world on its own. However, on stage, you have the ability to see that world. The stage leads you to a close to an accurate depiction of the characters. It’s as if you get to travel in time for a few hours “
Erin Campbell, who plays Mother, said, “I personally enjoy how the writers of the musical made the story more cohesive and made you feel more for the characters than I think you did in the book. Everything flows together nicely and you got lost in the story and time stands still and you don’t even realize how much time has passed when you get to the end of the show.”
Douglas McCarthy, who plays Tateh, said, “One of the things I think is impressive about the show is how it takes these complex and narratively dense story lines and weaves them together. In another musical, each of the three families stories could easily have been the sole focus of the show, but with ‘Ragtime’ we move from storyline to storyline so seamlessly that it gives you such a full picture of America at that time. The musical themes of the show help hold the story together as well. Every song is a variation on a theme we’ve already heard and so even as these characters progress, we are constantly being reminded of where they started through their themes.”
In terms of the musical score crafted for “Ragtime,” Henry said, “The music that you hear on stage cradles you like a lullaby. When the cast stands together and sings ‘Till We Reach That Day’ the message rings clear that there is hope. The music also makes you empathize with each character as they go through their journey.”
“All of the ensemble numbers are big and exciting,” said Campbell. “The solos are heartfelt and moving. The music really takes you back to the 1900s while also adding in some modern flare as well. ‘Your Daddy’s Hands’ and ‘Til We Reach That Day’ will move you to tears while ‘Buffalo Nickel’ and ‘What A Game’ might have you cracking a smile. I love that you have such a wide array of emotions throughout the show.”
The leads see contemporary relevance to the stories on stage.
“America has come so far, yet still has far to go,” said Henry. “ Simply put, I don’t think there is enough actual love in this world. We have become a nation that is selfish and we are slowly becoming incapable of loving someone else. Our leadership—a loosely used term— does not set the example for the citizens of America. We don’t have ‘Greats’ anymore. Our Martin Luther Kings or John F. Kennedys. America has lost its grandparents and there’s no one who is passionate enough about change to stand up for change. We have become a nation of ‘I agree, but let someone else handle it.’ The amount of pure hatred that you see in the world today is sickening. Why are we tripping each other when we’re running the same race? The human race.”
“All three journeys are extremely relevant to today’s struggles,” said Campbell. “Coalhouse is a man of color trying to fit into a society that is not accepting of him. He wants to make himself a ‘better’ man for his wife and child. In his quest for the same ‘normalcy’ as most everyone else, he is made fun of for the color of his skin. Even today, people are still fighting for the same ‘normalcy’ and being deterred because they are a different ethnicity or class level.”
“Tateh is an immigrant coming to America in hopes of a better life,” said Campbell. “His story ends up in the perfect ‘American Dream’ while today, many immigrants aren’t even given the chance to make this kind of dream happen because laws being put into place by our government are either out-casting them completely or treating them as a lower unimportant class so in turn they are struggling like Tateh does in the beginning of the show.”
“Mother’s journey is one that I feel is very positive in her time and I feel like it also relates to a good majority of people today,” said Campbell. “She is a woman who was brought up in a certain way of living and has her own transformation into thinking in a completely new light and doing things that she never thought she would. This translates into today’s society with the millennials and most Gen-Xers being accepting of all kinds of different people. From gay marriage to all different forms of gender identification, just like Mother, all these new ways of thinking and being are being embraced and accepted instead of being outcast.”
“As a history lesson, ‘Ragtime’ shows us pretty unabashedly what race and class division looked like at the turn of the century. I think it’s important in the current climate to stop and consider that history and realize that it was not that long ago,” said McCarthy.
The show is heavy, but Henry said audiences should give it a chance. “The show has a little bit of everything you need to make a show pleasing. Love, Hate, Murder Resolve, Comedy, and Music. I think the audience can connect with it because, although it may be set in an older time, the story still is relevant today, with Coalhouse’s character substituted for Philando Castile, or Trayvon Martin.”
Campbell said, “Audiences will love this show because it has some wonderful stories from the turn of the century that renews a new interest in the history of this country. There are names that everyone has heard and maybe even some they might go home and research.”
McCarthy said: “I think given the scope of the production and the range of experiences we are portraying, that audience members will find something or someone to relate to. I know that as the child of an immigrant, when I think about Tateh’s experience it makes me think about what my mother went through when she came to this country.”
“This show takes you on a rollercoaster ride of emotions but it leaves you… unfulfilled,” said Henry. “It’s not very cathartic for the storyline of Coalhouse. I think it also speaks volumes that an immigrant can come to America and become a success and yet a black man who was born in America, still fights a battle of hate simply because of the color of his skin.”
“As far as this production,” said Henry, “it’s a ‘MUST-SEE’ because the talent on the stage is out of this world. A heart-wrenching story, demanding music, and a stellar cast make for an unforgettable Friday or Saturday night.”
“I think the audience will like this production because it has a cast full of extremely talented performers who are very dedicated to performing this musical and telling the wonderful and sad story that I feel the writers wanted to tell,” said Campbell. “It is definitely a production that you don’t want to miss.”
“Ragtime,” which opened Dec. 8, continues after the holidays and runs Jan. 5 to 14. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $23, with discounts for seniors, students, and groups. Tickets are available by visiting connecticuttheatrecompany.org or by purchasing at the door the night of the show. Connecticut Theatre Company is located at the Repertory Theatre on 23 Norden St., New Britain,