A woman struggling to find her identity as a wife and mother. A black couple facing racial tensions in their community. An immigrant and his daughter trying to better their lives in America. A wealthy young man swept up in a political movement, learning to fight for what is right.
These themes are all explored in the Tony Award-winning “Ragtime,” coming to Open Stage of Harrisburg in late May. The sweeping musical mixes fictional characters with real-life historical figures, resulting in a melting pot of American stories.
Traditionally presented with a cast of 40, large sets and vivid costumes, “Ragtime” Director Rachel Landon is taking a simpler approach in her direction, focusing on the basics needed to tell the story.
“With musicals, we can get lost in the spectacle,” said Landon. “Our approach will enable people to identify with every single character and the struggles they are going through. When you remove those elements often associated with a large-scale musical, you’re left with the story and characters.”
James Oronoz, who is playing Coalhouse Walker, Jr., is excited about the changes that are being made to the presentation of the show.
“What I love about the entire show is every song feels like it’s a finale,” said Oronoz. “It’s so grand and big and so beautiful. But, ultimately, why I love doing theater is telling stories. The changes being made are steps forward in an ever-changing world and will bring more strength to the piece.”
To accomplish Landon’s vision for “Ragtime,” actors will portray multiple characters, costumes and sets will be kept simple, and a small pit orchestra will provide the music.
“Presenting the show in a different way allows actors to play characters they may not have been able to play,” Landon said. “There will be modern and anachronistic elements that will support that choice. The music is so epic and boiling it down to a ragtime feel will add an additional element of Americana to the show.”
Based on the novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow, the musical was adapted by Terrance McNally, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. The plot of “Ragtime” focuses on one question: “What is the American dream?” Set in the early 1900s and told through the daily lives of three different and diverse families, the story’s themes are timeless.
“These characters have to make very tough choices as the landscape of America is changing faster than they are prepared for,” said Landon. “Although set 100 years ago, we still struggle greatly with our relationship with immigration and race. These are social themes where people will say, ‘That’s us, too. That’s America.’”
Even though the presentation of the show will be simplified, it is important to Landon that the original story and themes be honored. The through-line of “Ragtime” is told through the third person with a switch to first person for intimate and challenging scenes. Open Stage’s version will maintain that method of storytelling.
“We want to respect the words these characters have to share,” said Landon. “One of the reasons we picked ‘Ragtime’ in our ‘Coming of Age’ season is because it exemplifies the country coming of age. It also shows us that, in many ways, our country is still coming of age. Our version of ‘Ragtime’ will emphasize that, showing these are incredibly flawed people who don’t realize how greatly they are flawed until these events grow out of control.”
As “Ragtime” concludes the season, the musical will be the final show in the theater’s current configuration. Major renovations to the theater will occur over the summer, including a new entrance, technical upgrades and updates to all existing classrooms, dressing rooms and office space, leading in to Season 34, which is aptly themed “Metamorphosis.”
While many changes are coming to Open Stage, audience members will enjoy seeing a familiar face return to the stage in “Ragtime.” Stuart Landon, producing artistic director, will portray Tateh. He last appearance in a main stage show was “Sondheim on Sondheim” in 2016.
Whether or not audience members have previously seen “Ragtime,” Open Stage of Harrisburg’s version of the musical will offer an intimate look at life in America—both the good and bad—and how people can learn from the past to better their futures.
“I would love for everyone to come in with an open mind and open heart,” said Oronoz. “And get ready to be entertained.”
The “Ragtime” cast also features Brad Barkdoll, Benny Benamati, Stiles Colbert, TJ Creedon, Georgianna Hicks, Jonathan Hoover, Alex King, Pilisa Mackay, David Payne, Gretchen Sutton, Ian Wallace and Stacey Werner. Musical direction is provided by Nicholas Werner and choreography by Kelly Strange.
“Ragtime” runs May 25 through June 16 at Open Stage of Harrisburg, 25 N. Court St., Harrisburg. Tickets are available at www.openstagehbg.com. For information on Season 34, please visit the Open Stage website.
UPCOMING THEATER EVENTS
AT HARRISBURG’S PROFESSIONAL
At Gamut Theatre
The Popcorn Hat Players Present
“Puss In Boots”
May 1 to 18
Saturdays at 1 p.m.
Select Wednesday and Thursday performances available by request and availability.
Call the box office for more information. 717-238-4111
KIDSFEST at Artsfest
May 25 to 27
Riverfront Park, Harrisburg
26th Annual “Free Shakespeare in the Park”
William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”
May 31 to June 15
Wednesdays to Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.
At Open Stage of Harrisburg
Musical Theatre Master Class
With Lara Hayhurst and Trey Compton
May 6 at 7 p.m.
May 25 to June 16
A breathtaking musical about what it means to live the American dream.