For actors Anthony Ortega, Jonathan Martin and Amanda Hart Bassett, Music Theatre of Denton’s production of Ragtime tells a 1900s story that still makes sense in 2019.
Ragtime charts the struggles of three American communities — an upper-class white family with a growing business, a black musician living and creating in Harlem and a Jewish immigrant trying to find his place in the free world.
Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime weaves the stories of New Yorkers through those of historical figures (Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, J. P. Morgan and Booker T. Washington, to name a few). Ragtime music, a daring form of expression from Harlem, bubbles up through the story as if to remind the audience that people rarely stay where they’re told and that crossing boundaries can yield something new.
Ortega plays the role of Tateh, a Jewish man who comes to Ellis Island with his young daughter after the death of his wife. Martin plays the role of Younger Brother, a son of privilege who awakens to the inequality around him. Bassett plays Mother, a woman who finds herself — and her talent for business — when her husband heads off on an adventure.
“Tateh is a young father who comes to Ellis Island from Latvia with his daughter, and he’s coming here to have his American dream,” Ortega said.
Tateh is a silhouette artist who means to prove himself. He resists the pull of the trade unions and finds politics untenable. Tateh is independent and hardworking, but the American dream is more elusive than he expects.
“His daughter gets sick, and Tateh has a hard time making ends meet,” Ortega said. “He’s dealing with the tenement houses where he lives, and he says, ‘There are worms in the scraps they feed us’. His daughter is everything for him, and he’ll do anything, everything he can for her.”
Younger Brother has an easier life that Tateh. He’s a talented pyrotechnical mind and poised to move up in the family fireworks business.
“But he’s not sure what he wants to be, or where he wants to go in his life,” Martin said. “He loves everyone, though.
When Younger Brother meets Coalhouse Walker Jr., a black musician living in Harlem — a different world from Younger Brother’s suburban New Rochelle — he’s awakened to the inequality and injustice all around him.
“Younger Brother’s story arc starts out really basic. He’s in love with someone, and when that doesn’t work out, he falls in with Coalhouse, everything changes. He’s very much ‘I’m not going to sit here and take this anymore.’ He figures out who he is,” Martin said.
Bassett said Mother has a similar journey. The characters are searching for their identity, and they fight for a life of dignity and purpose.
“In the beginning, she says she’s fortunate to have been so protected and provided for by her husband,” Bassett said. “But when her husband runs off on his latest adventure, she steps up and runs the business. She finds out she’s good at it, that she can take care of things.”
The three characters are brought together by Coalhouse, whose music eventually plays second fiddle to his fight for justice.
John Norine is the music director, conducting an orchestra of about 16 musicians. Director Eric B. Ryan leads a cast of 38 performers. Producer Scott Deck said Ragtime is ripe for local audiences.
“The messages are all about self-discovery,” he said. “And it seems really timely, given that we’re talking about immigration and racism in America.”
Ortega said he’s working hard to get every single line from his script into the audience.
“Tateh has a lot to say, and as basic as it sounds, I’ve got to make sure the audience understands him,” he said. “Just getting a chance to tell these stories is amazing. I think it’s so important to have representation of these characters on stage, especially now with what’s going on in the country.”
Bassett said Ragtime‘s score is nearly operatic, technically, and that the cast has to be confident they can sing the music truthfully and as its written.
“The level of musicality is pretty high,” she said. “Considering how textured the score is, we really have to pay attention and perform the music technically.”
Martin, Bassett and Ortega said Ragtime will get audiences talking. The musical is suitable for families.
“Kids will probably ask some questions, just like the children on stage ask questions,” Bassett said.
“People shouldn’t come to the theater expecting to see a comedy,” Deck said. “But at the end, you’ll be inspired. Last week at rehearsal, I was tearing up myself.”