/ Wednesday, February 17, 2016

A sign of a great play or musical is how well it speaks to an audience years after it was written. It is only 20 years since the 1996 Broadway debut of “Ragtime,” the musical based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel about rapid societal changes in the early 20th century. But after watching it again Tuesday night in a mostly impressive production at Venice Theatre, I was surprised by how it so artfully comments on so many of the problems that we face today.

The musical is about the melding of cultures — the privileged one percenters in the New York suburbs, black people trying to make their way around racism and newly arrived Jewish immigrants determined to find success. We’re watching change happen before us and the struggle between carrying on tradition, moving forward and the reasoning behind violence that destroys too many people living in poverty.

It sounds like the various platforms of our presidential candidates.

There are some powerful scenes in Terrence McNally’s book and moving moments in the beautiful songs by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens.

Venice Theatre had a major hit with “Ragtime” six years ago, when it became the biggest hit in the company’s history until last fall’s production of “Hair.” Director and choreographer Brad Wages has once again staged the musical in a cinematic style so it rarely stops moving. It flows naturally from one scene to the next.

Several of the 2010 cast has returned, notably Kristofer Geddie, who has grown stronger and more compelling as Ragtime piano player Coalhouse Walkers Jr., who triggers a major racial protest while standing up for himself and protecting his fiancee and baby; Joseph Giglia, who delivers a moving and often powerful performance as Tateh; Marla Oppenheim as the powerful anarchist Emma Goldman and Carroll M. Hunter as a compassionate Booker T. Washington.

In the large cast, they are joined this time around by Eve Marie Caballero as a Mother who is more caring and nurturing than you might expect from the period and who grows before our eyes into an early 20th-century feminist. Ken Basque plays her emotionally (and sometimes physically) distant husband, Father. Jeffrey Sadler is energetic as Younger Brother, who is trying to find a purpose for himself. DaNiesha Carr plays Coalhouse’s fiancee, Sarah, with spirit. There are also fine contributions from Allison Pickens as showgirl celebrity Evelyn Nesbitt and Patrick Tancey as Harry Houdini.

The show unfolds on a set of scaffolding and raised platforms designed by John Michael Andzulis that leaves room for the large cast to share stories, dance and sing, and they look gorgeous (or at least appropriate) in Nicholas Hartman’s richly detailed costumes.

… all the performers stayed true to their characters, making them real and honest with their emotions.

As a result, they draw you ever more closely into a a frequently thrilling and moving story.