The 5th Avenue Theatre’s production of the musical “Ragtime” afforded the opportunity to write again about cast member and Snohomish High School alumna Billie Wildrick. I went to see the local girl, but I got even more. “Ragtime” delivers.
A well-known, talented and appreciated Seattle actress, Wildrick is outstanding as the chorus girl, model and celebrity Evelyn Nesbit. “Ragtime” also involves other equally intriguing characters from history, including socialist Emma Goldman, escape artist Harry Houdini, Tuskegee University founder Booker T. Washington, financier J.P. Morgan, industrialist Henry Ford, explorer Admiral Robert Peary and his assistant Matthew Henson.
What I expected was a musical look at E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 historical novel, which I knew was about New Yorkers in the early 20th century. What I came away with, however, was the overwhelming sense of how this 100-plus-year-old story is still relevant. And perhaps especially now.
Musical theater is a populist art form as American as baseball and apple pie. As the 5th Avenue’s executive producer David Armstrong says in his program notes, musicals have the ability to “reflect on and explore our society and human experience in deep and meaningful ways.”
Themes of racial prejudice, cultural conflict and women who dare to step outside of societal norms are found in many, if not most, musicals. It’s all here in “Ragtime.” The years from the turn of the century leading up to World War I were a tough time in U.S. history, and coincidentally (or not) these were the years in which Scott Joplin’s piano rags were popular.
The story involves three groups of people, whose lives eventually intersect, much in the way the musical genre we call piano ragtime weaves together syncopated African rhythms, European classical and folk music, and American marches.
The audience meets Mother, the matriarch of a wealthy Anglo-Saxon Protestant family; Coalhouse Walker, a Harlem ragtime pianist from the generation of African Americans born after slavery; and Tateh, an artist who represents Eastern European Jewish immigrants. In the story, Mother and her husband become estranged, in part because of his racism. Walker and fiance Sarah celebrate the birth of their son, but then she is killed by police. Tateh and his daughter scrape by in poverty. Hurt by bigotry, Tateh wonders if the American dream is even possible.
Sexual assault and feminism are topics, too, as illustrated when a wealthy stranger offers to buy Tateh’s little daughter from him, and when Evelyn Nesbit (raped as a teen ingenue by a wealthy suitor) loses her youth and beauty and fades into obscurity.
No spoilers here, but suffice to say a lot more happens in Act II. Watch for great performances by Kendra Kassebaum as Mother, Douglas Lyons as Coalhouse Walker, Danyel Fulton as Sarah and especially Joshua Carter as Tateh.
Many of the well-known regional cast members also have supporting roles in the ensemble — in total the production has only 13 adults and four children. Notable are Wildrick, of course, along with Eric Ankrim as Houdini, Andi Alhadeff as Goldman, Louis Hobson as Father, Matthew Kacergis as Mother’s younger brother, Lauren De Pree as Sarah’s friend, Richard Peacock as Coalhouse’s friend, Hugh Hastings as Grandfather, Ty Willis as Booker T. Washington and Coleman Hunter as the Little Boy.
Written 20 years ago by Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, “Ragtime” is directed in Seattle by Peter Rothstein, Ben Whiteley and Kelli Foster Warder. To read more about the production, its designers and talented orchestra, go to www.5thavenue.org.
If you go, bring tissues and listen close to the songs “Wheels of a Dream,” (We Can Never Go) “Back to Before” and “Till We Reach That Day.”
“Give the people a day of peace. A day of pride. A day of justice. We have been denied. Let the new day dawn, oh, Lord, I pray. We’ll never get to heaven. Till we reach that day.”
Tuesdays through Sundays through Nov. 5 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle. Information about show times and tickets (from $29) is at www.5thavenue.org/ragtime or call 206-625-1900.