An unprovoked assault on a Black motorist. An unwanted infant buried alive in a garden. Vengeful vigilantes burning down firehouses. A vapid starlet seeks tabloid publicity through the sensationalism of a deadly love triangle. Are these merely headlines in a daily newspaper? No, they are key plot points from Ragtime, the celebrated Tony Award-winning 1998 musical that is celebrating its 25th anniversary this spring. Ragtime is being presented by 5-Star Theatricals in a two-weekend run at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, and if there has been a better production of the sumptuous musical anywhere, we have yet to see it. 5-Star’s production hits all the right chords with its stylish production, augmented by a near-perfect cast and a superb full orchestra.
Ragtime is based on E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, a work of historical fiction that placed prominent Americans into a story about three families: one white, one Black, and one immigrant, at the turn of the twentieth century. The plot focused on themes including racial tolerance, political anarchy, and its characters’ desires to be respected as individuals, checks all the boxes in today’s newspaper headlines concerning immigration, the Black Lives Matter movement, and race-based attacks.
The metaphor for the plot elements is Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s score, many of whose songs are tinged with the syncopated lilt of ragtime music of Scott Joplin. Ahrens, the show’s lyricist, once wrote songs about American history for Schoolhouse Rock, a series of short, animated films for children’s television. With this experience, Ahrens was ideally suited to succinctly relate facts about historical events, including, in “The Crime of the Century,” the sordid 1906 love triangle that saw railroad mogul Harry K. Thaw murder vaudeville ingenue Evelyn Nesbit’s husband, prominent architect Stanford White.
Nesbit was one of many American personalities who are major characters in the show, each of whom gets a solo showcase. Others include anarchist Emma Goldman (“The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square”), Black educator Booker T. Washington (“Look What You’ve Done”), magician/illusionist Harry Houdini (“Harry Houdini, Master Escapist”), and industrialist Henry Ford (“Henry Ford”).
Composer Stephen Flaherty’s music is symbolic of the ongoing struggle between Blacks and whites, the unyielding left hand representing the rigid industrial revolution and the white establishment balanced by the right hand’s syncopated melodies, representation Black Americans straining to be free of the bondage of the left hand’s rhythm.
This struggle is personified by the show’s main character, Coalhouse Walker, Jr., an educated, proud Black piano player who seeks justice after his Model T Ford is vandalized by white racist volunteer firemen. Walker is played by Marty Austin Lamar, an actor who belies his hulking physicality with tenderness and emotion in scenes with Coalhouse’s beloved Sarah, played by Brittany Anderson. Anderson probably received the most rousing ovation in an evening of rousing ovations with her stunning performance of “Your Daddy’s Son.”
Misty Cotton portrays Mother, and delivers a stirring performance as the wealthy housewife who has to make major decisions in her life for the very first time, after her thrill-seeking husband, Father, (played with stentorian excellence by Michael Scott Harris) embarks on an expedition to the North Pole with Admiral Robert Peary. The third major character in the show, the Latvian immigrant Tateh, is played by Hank Jacobs, who balances pathos with humor in his two solo showcases: “A Shtetl Iz Amereke” and “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.”
Jeremy Ingraham does a fabulous job in the key role of Younger Brother, who rebounds after being spurned by Evelyn Nesbit to seek a purpose in life by using his bomb-making abilities to join Walker’s gang of vigilantes.
Also exceptional are two youngsters who portray key roles in the show: Daxton Bethoney as Mother and Father’s clairvoyant son, Edgar, and Lila Dunham as Tateh’s unnamed daughter.
The historical characters are key to the show’s effectiveness and all the parts are sensitively portrayed, including Samantha Wynn Greenstone as the strident Emma Goldman, Ceron Jones as the statesmanlike Booker T. Washington, Jacob Hoff as a particularly dashing Houdini, Davis Hamilton as Henry Ford, and the delightful Monica Danae Ricketts as Evelyn Nesbit.
A last-minute replacement, 5-Star board member Richard Storrs ably substituted for the ailing Steve Perren in the role of Grandfather.
Ragtime is superbly directed by Jeffrey Polk with exceptional choreography by Michelle Elkin and able music direction by Tom Griffin.
Ragtime runs through April 2 at the Bank of America Performing Arts Center in Thousand Oaks. For tickets, visit ticketmaster.com.