News Column

Cultures collide in Hale Centre Theatre's compelling 'Ragtime'

June 4, 2013


June 04--It's just after the turn of the century, and everything is changing.

Cultures are clashing and attitudes are shifting. The gap between rich and poor is deep and wide. Celebrities gain fame through amazing talents or acts of infamy. Racism, bigotry and intolerance persist. Hatred and violence are countered by extraordinary acts of kindness and the indomitable American spirit.

Sound familiar?

But it's not the 21st century. It's 100 years earlier, at the dawn of the 20th century, as the award-winning musical "Ragtime" returns to Hale Centre Theatre. The production, which opens Wednesday, June 5, features sweeping music, nostalgic dance, intricate staging and elaborate props, including a flying Harry Houdini and a Model T Ford that has been modified to be destroyed during each performance.

The cast of 34 includes two lead actors with deep Top of Utah connections starring in key roles.

"His Name Was Coalhouse Walker," North Ogden native Carleton Bluford posted on his Facebook wall a few months ago, after learning he had landed the role -- for the second time -- at the theater in the round in West Valley City. The post is the name of a song in the show that introduces Bluford's character, a Harlem musician with a talent for ragtime.

Bluford, who studied musical theater at Weber State University, also played the role in HCT's 2005 Utah premiere of the musical.

"You walk out of the theater feeling patriotic and that you want to change your life and change the world," said Fruit Heights resident Kyle Olsen, a WSU musical theater graduate who is double-cast as Jewish immigrant Tateh in the show.

Coalhouse and Tateh's stories are woven into the sweeping story, which also features historical characters such as Houdini, Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington and Henry Ford. The musical is an emotional tale about life choices and how those decisions shape the character and personality of each individual.

" 'Ragtime' is a powerful story about the fabric of our country," said director Chris Clark in a press release. "The music is gorgeous. 'Ragtime' is the American 'Les Miserables.' It's America's coming of age versus France's coming of age."

Moving to ragtime

Both Olsen and Bluford count "Ragtime" among their favorite shows due to its powerful storytelling and beautiful music. The score is authentic to the time period and captures the excitement of the period with soaring ballads and dazzling ensemble numbers.

Olsen, who was also in the 2005 HCT production as a member of the ensemble, said that although he is grateful to be playing Tateh, he is also a little envious of the ensemble, since they are in some of the show's most powerful moments.

"I do miss those big numbers," Olsen said. "This is probably the most talented cast Hale has ever had."

Based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, "Ragtime" presents the story of three distinct groups of people.

The three groups include the upper-class, uptight and white Protestants hoping to hold on to the good life in New Rochelle, N.Y.; the African-Americans living in Harlem who are launching a new style of music and pursuing their dreams of a better life; and the poor Eastern European immigrants whose hard work and drive to succeed has led them to America.

"It is a clash of these people and their backgrounds and how they interact with each other," Olsen said.

The story was written by Terrence McNally, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. It premiered on Broadway in 1998 and was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, ultimately winning four Tonys, including best musical.

The genius of the musical may be that the characters are portrayed not as stereotypes, but as layered, complex characters capable of both good and bad.

An emotional story

In the first act, Coalhouse is upwardly mobile and filled with hopes and dreams. Tateh is depressed and downtrodden as he struggles to make a life in America for him and his daughter. Olsen noted that HCT's dramaturg has been providing the cast with extensive research to help them understand exactly what an immigrant's life was like.

For example, the exploitation of child labor on the weaving looms came as a shock to some of the younger cast members, he said.

Tateh's life eventually takes a turn for the better, but a tragedy at the end of the first act alters everything for Coalhouse, who has pursued the love of his life, Sarah Brown, to New Rochelle in his shiny, new Model T. Sarah has retreated to New Rochelle with their baby boy and found sanctuary in the home of a sympathetic white family headed by two other lead characters simply called Father and Mother.

"At the end of the first act, you are going to be bawling your eyes out," said Bluford.

As the country changes and a new era dawns, "Ragtime" offers audiences a chance to reflect on how things have changed -- and how many things have remained the same.

The story doesn't go where you might expect it to go, and not all endings can be happy, but Bluford and Olsen pointed out that the musical does end on a beautiful note that promotes multiculturalism.

"We are a collection of the world here in the United States," HCT executive producer Sally Dietlein said in a press release. "This is America's story. When you weave that with the exquisite beauty of the music, it is a remarkable, almost spiritual, experience."


(c)2013 the Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah)

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