“Ragtime” is a big show.
Forty cast members will be filling the stage of the Ephrata Performing Arts Center when it opens tonight.
But how could it not be big? “Ragtime” is about America in all its glory, promise and adventure.
And its violence, racism and cruelty.
“ ‘Ragtime’ is the story of this country at the turn of the last century. It’s about what America is, the dream of America,” director Ed Fernandez says. “And the difficulty of that dream.”
But as huge as the show is, it is also intimate in the confines of the EPAC stage.
“It’s kind of a hybrid show,” Fernandez says. “It’s simple but still epic.”
“Ragtime” can be done with a much smaller cast, but Fernandez wants the show to feel epic. At the same time, he remembers seeing it on Broadway and feeling removed from it because it was so lavish.
So he has been working to make it feel big but intimate, too.
“It retains its hugeness with all those voices raised together. It’s very important to have that sound,” Fernandez says. “But I’m glad it works on the intimacy of the stage.”
The musical revolves around three families and their different American experiences.
There is the well-to-do family living in New Rochelle, New York. Its members are known only as Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother, Grandfather and the Little Boy. America has always opened its arms for this white Protestant family.
They have gained their wealth through selling flags and fireworks, a lucrative endeavor considering how much the country likes to celebrate itself.
Younger Brother is a genius with explosives, which will tie his story to that of Coalhouse Walker.
An black baby is found on the family’s property in New Rochelle, with the severely depressed mother, Sara. She is brought into the home and soon, the baby’s father, Coalhouse Walker, starts visiting.
Coalhouse is a successful musician who dresses in fine clothes and drives a shiny, new automobile.
His success threatens members of the racist fire crew he must pass on his visits to see Sara.
They begin to humiliate him, to strip him of his dignity. His car is his symbol of the American dream, and they destroy it.
“He believes in the dream,” Fernandez says. “And the fact that the destruction of his car is done in fun by Irish immigrants makes it even more horrifying. They take everything from him.”
Coalhouse fights back, determined to have his car repaired and returned to him.
But can a black man at the turn of the last century even consider the American dream or is racism ingrained so deeply in the American soul?
The third family represents the immigrant experience. Tateh and his daughter are Jews from Eastern Europe, living in the tenements of the lower east side.
Tateh is a talented artist and finds a footing in the earliest days of film animation.
As he grows wealthy from his start in “moving pictures,” he meets Mother and they fall in love.
“Their stories interweave,” Fernandez says. “It’s really a tapestry of America.”
The stage features three sets of bleachers where members of the ensemble sit and stand throughout much of the show.
Some in the ensemble play other characters, including real people such as Evelyn Nesbit, Houdini, Booker T. Washington, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Emma Goldman, among others. They then return to their role of the ensemble, watching the story unfold.
“They are like a Greek chorus,” Fernandez says. “They are omnipresent.”
“The cast is segregated,” Fernandez says. “We want to show white privilege, blacks and immigrants (as different experiences.) By the end of the show, it is totally integrated.”
“We are telling each other our story of who we are and we are becoming one,” Fernandez says.
“It’s about the promise of America and passing it on to our children.”