A timely production of ‘Ragtime’ opens at Theatre Aspen | AspenTimes.com

A timely production of ‘Ragtime’ opens at Theatre Aspen

It had its original Broadway run in 1998. It's based on a novel published in 1975. And it's set in 1902. Yet the musical "Ragtime," which begins a summer run at Theatre Aspen this weekend, speaks directly to the most pressing social issues of 2018 in the U.S.

The musical includes a pivotal episode of racially motivated police brutality, echoing incidents that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement and — in a chilling parallel to recent events on the southern border — features a child being separated from immigrant parents. There are storylines highlighting the disparity between the 99 percent versus the 1 percent and depicting a nascent workers’ and women's rights movement.

Also present, of course, are the most recurrent of American themes: hope for a more perfect union and belief in a better tomorrow for the next generation.

"It couldn't be more timely," said "Ragtime" director Mark Martino. "When the show premiered, these were problems we ascribed to 1902 — we could pat ourselves on the back and say, 'Look how far we've come.' And now, here we are in 2018 and it seems like it was written today to confront the issues we're confronting today."

"Ragtime" is an epic about America at the turn of the 20th century, mixing fictional characters with historical figures like Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford and Emma Goldman. It follows three American experiences — African-Americans in Harlem, Eastern European immigrants in downtown Manhattan and upper crust white Americans in the suburbs of New Rochelle — that intertwine.

"I strongly believe 'Ragtime' is one of the most important musicals to produce in the U.S. right now," said Iris Beaumier, who plays Sarah, the role that won Audra McDonald a Tony Award for the original Broadway production. "In this political moment, the idea of American identity is being challenged. 'Ragtime' reflects the true mosaic in our country, shaped by different heritages and cultures."

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Martino and his creative team haven't done anything to the production to play up its contemporary resonance, but he said the cast and crew can't help but reflect on today's headlines as they prepare the show for opening night.

"It's unavoidable," he said. "We can't possibly sing these songs and say these words without reflecting on what's happening in our country. And that's not even trying to be political about it. It's personal."

Michael Andreaus, who plays Coalhouse — a ragtime pianist transformed by the racial injustice of his time — noted that the musical's multi-narrative structure creates opportunities for any audience member of any political stripe or background to identify with "Ragtime."

"It's unfortunate that it does still resonate," he said. "But the beauty of this show is that there are so many different stories that are intertwined that anybody can find something to relate to — and maybe see things with a new perspective."

"Ragtime" begins previews today and opens Tuesday, running through Aug. 18. The musical launches a four-show Theatre Aspen summer season also including "Our Town," "Godspell" and a conservatory production of "Mary Poppins, Jr."

The Theatre Aspen creative team is aiming to translate the sweeping scale of "Ragtime" into a potent and personal story.

The show's cast of 24 is among the biggest in the company's history, but culled from twice that number from the original production. A 10-piece orchestra will play the Tony-winning "Ragtime" score. The company has expanded its proscenium by 8 feet to make room for larger sets and to offer a grander stage. But the tight quarters of the 200-seat tent theater will keep it intimate.

Martino, in his 10th year helming shows for Theatre Aspen, compared his approach to staging "Ragtime" — and addressing the technical challenges its scale presents in a small theater — to the company's 2012 production of "Les Miserables." That monumental Theatre Aspen show, to stunning effect, stressed the intimate human dramas of the "Les Mis" while working on a far smaller canvas than the Broadway extravaganza. Martino is hoping to do the same with "Ragtime," harnessing the power of the theater's small size and thrust stage to render an epic in extreme close-up.

As has become a Theatre Aspen signature, the show will make use of aisles and the full theater, leaving little distance — both physically and emotionally — between the characters and the crowd.

"It's exciting because it puts the emphasis on the story — on all these people and what the changing face of America in 1902 means to each of them," Martino said.

atravers@aspentimes.com

IF YOU GO …

What: ‘Ragtime,’ presented by Theatre Aspen

Where: Hurst Theatre, Rio Grande Park

When: Through Aug. 18; previews June 23 & 25

How much: $30-$110

Tickets: Theatre Aspen box office; theatreaspen.org