Foothill Music Theatre's production of "Ragtime" affirms my belief that this 1998 show is one of the greatest musicals of the late 20th century. When it came time for the Tony Awards, it was up against the likes of "The Lion King," which is visually stunning but otherwise insubstantial, and the revival of "Cabaret," a great show that originally opened in 1967. Still, it walked away with four Tonys: Terrence McNally for his book, an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel; Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) for score; Audra McDonald for featured actress in a musical; and William David Brohn for orchestrations.
With its brilliant book and score, "Ragtime" weaves the story of three groups of people in New York in the early 20th century: WASPs in New Rochelle, blacks in Harlem and immigrants in the tenements. Jay Manley, FMT's artistic director, never one to shy from a challenge, brings the show to life with a cast of nearly 60 plus an orchestra led by musical director Catherine Snider. Working with a cast of student and community performers with only one Equity actor -- James Monroe Iglehart as Coalhouse Walker Jr. -- Manley, Snider and choreographer Tyler Risk stage a brightly polished show that engages the audience from the start and never lets up. It benefits from costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt (adapted by Janis Bergmann) and set by J.B. Wilson (adapted by Joe Ragey), both from the TheatreWorks production; along with lighting by Kurt Landisman and sound by Andrew Heller.
Besides Iglehart, who brings his outstanding singing and acting talents to Coalhouse, standouts in the cast include Mary Melnick as Mother; Julie Valentine as Sarah, Coalhouse's beloved; Paul Araquistain as Tateh, the Jewish Latvian immigrant who comes to the United States with his young daughter; and Robert Brewer as (Mother's) Younger Brother. However, nearly every featured member of the cast is fine, and the ensemble work is excellent.
The opening sequence itself, when each group of people is introduced by the title song, is worth the price of admission, but then it keeps going with one memorable scene after another until it concludes with a reprise of the title song and the inspiring "Wheels of a Dream." This is truly an uplifting show, and FMT gives it its full due.
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