“Ragtime,” which had a triumphant opening at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center Thursday night, has great ambitions. It wants to tell us no less than the story of America at the turn of the last century — the beginning of what is known as the American Century.
And in the process, of course, it is telling us much about ourselves today. The old adage is true: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
This is a show with all cylinders roaring at full speed.
An elegantly simple set by Mike Rhoads, featuring long rectangular windows that change color throughout the show, is wonderfully effective in an abstract way.
Great costumes by Lisa Harris and Carolyn Smith put us right there in the beginning of the 20th century, and the choreography by Kristin Pontz, with assistance from Michael Roman, effectively showcases the three different stories being told.
A small orchestra, comprising Jen Harris on violin, Caitlin Case on cello and music director Zach Smith on keyboards, sounds fantastic, bringing richness to the big musical score. Kudos to Smith for making it work so well.
And the huge cast of 40 is strong and forceful, bringing all three stories to vivid life.
Director Ed Fernandez (with assistance from Andi Jo Hill and John Kleimo) has taken on a big challenge with “Ragtime” and comes out a winner. The story, based on E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling 1975 book, interfuses real people into the fictional story, including Houdini (Sean Deffley) Booker T. Washington (Mike Truitt), Emma Goldman (a powerful yet funny Tricia Corcoran) and Evelyn Nesbitt (a wonderful Heidi Carletti, who almost steals the show on occasion). They all connect with the main characters but in mostly fleeting ways.
The white privileged family members who live in a big house in New Rochelle, New York, are meant to be archetypes, so they have no names.
The family includes Mother (a fine Stacia Smith, who shows us Mother’s evolution beautifully), who comes to question the value of her life and the society in which she lives; Father (a robust Preston Schreffler), who goes off to explore the world but fails to see the changes going on in his own country and family; Younger Brother (a haunted Rick Kopecky), who is searching for meaning in his life; Grandfather (a witty Gene Ellis), who is busy grousing about everything, and the little boy, who actually has the name Edgar and is both funny and wise.
The amazing young Noah Wood does steal the show. This kid has star quality. His comic timing is spot on, and he is in the moment right there with the rest of the cast.
Falling into their complacent lives is Sara (a powerful and vulnerable Yolanda Dwyer), an African American woman who abandoned her baby on their property. Mother agrees to take her and the baby in while Father is away exploring the North Pole.
The father of the baby is musician Coalhouse Walker (Randy Jeter in a tour de force performance), a successful musician from Harlem who has done Sara wrong but wants to make amends. He drives the Model T he is so proud of to the home in New Rochelle every Sunday in the hopes he will be received. The car is great and works well with the stage’s turntable .
Along the way, he has trouble with a group of volunteer firefighters he must pass. The Irish immigrants resent a black man owning such a fine car.
The third storyline follows the immigration journey of Tateh from Latvia with his young daughter, Little Girl.
Sean Young gives a warm and passionate performance, infusing it with sentimentality and humor. Maya Hartz is wonderful as Little Girl, showing us her fear, her love of her father and her amazement with America.
Tatah has a hard time of it and ends up working in a mill in Massachusetts, where he grows bitter about the American Dream.
Tatah will be able to pursue his dreams, but Coalhouse will not. The racism in the country is just too powerful.
The rest of the cast serves as a kind of Greek chorus, watching the show on three sets of bleachers. They are segregated by the three stories at first, with white privilege on one, immigrants on another, and African Americans on the third.
A lot of music flows through “Ragtime.” I especially loved “Wheels of a Dream,” which Coalhouse and Sara sing when the world seems wide open to them. “What a Game” is a funny look at baseball, while “The Crime of the Century” is a clever retelling of Nesbitt’s story, in which her millionaire husband killed her famous architect lover.
This is a big show. It comes in at three hours and it has a lot to say.
Congratulations to everyone involved for making it work so triumphantly.