Seeing Ragtime on stage is a vastly different experience from listening to it, and not just because it’s live theater. There’s so much context, so many connections, so much subtext that you don’t get from the songs alone. It’s very much a go-home-and-hug-your-kids kind of show.
I’ve been a fan of the music ever since we did a few songs from it in a revue back in college, but I’d never actually seen it until this month, when I caught 3D Theatricals’ production in Redondo Beach.
It’s a big show — forty-six people on stage, according to the director — and they turned in a great performance. The vocal standout, I thought, was the actress playing Mother. The actor playing Coalhouse had a very different voice than the one on the album, but he had physical presence and was able to really convey both his optimism in act one and his rage in act two. The character needs both to work.
Speaking of differences between the production and the cast album, I should note: when you just have the highlights, Father comes off as just kind of clueless. When you have the full songs and the book, he’s a bit of an obstinate jerk.
I found myself struck by the layers of historical interpretation: It’s a modern production of a 15-year-old adaptation of a 40-year-old novel about life in America 100 years ago. And we’re still dealing with the same problems: Institutionalized racism and sexism, exploitation of the working poor, conflict over how to handle immigration. It really hit at the moment when authorities kill a young African-American because they think (wrongly) that she has a gun. You can argue that any historical fiction is as much about the present day as it is about the period it’s set in, and maybe it’s a matter of each era distilling the common themes from the older work, but it was telling (and disheartening) how topical the story still is.