Shenandoah University, just up the way in Winchester, has a summer musical series. They bring in professional actors for most of the principal roles and their students make up the ensemble.

I knew the general outline of Ragtime, but hadn’t ever seen it performed, so I wanted to see it. The production was outstanding, musically, and the acting was gorgeous. Sometimes musicals can feel a bit flat, acting-wise, but this one felt incredibly immediate and emotionally present. The actors across the board were wonderful, but I particularly found Tateh, Coalhouse, and Mother deeply moving.

This show didn’t have a dramaturg credited, and it’s one where I felt the lack of a dramaturg. I wanted a solid program note that would identify the lines between fiction and fact, and the significance of the choices to use a real or fictional person, or even the significance of the choice to give a person a real name or an obviously fudged one (“Coalhouse Walker, Jr.” vs. “Mother”).

The lighting design was smart, and textually influenced. The design used silhouettes a lot–more than I think the script specifies–and in ways that enhanced that metaphor as it moved through the story. Toward the end, when Mother and Tateh are falling in love on the beach, the light created a clear shadow of Mother behind the actor on a curtain, and Tateh seemed to notice that, as if she were one of his silhouettes come to life.

I was less taken with the set design. It consisted of a walkway mostly constructed of pipes, and two massive rolling staircases that could be moved and recombined to become different settings. The flexibility of it served the story well, as it moves quickly from one location to the next, but the sketchiness of it felt cold and industrial. This design choice showed up in the piano and the car, as well–both were outlined in pipes and didn’t have any presence. Also, Coalhouse had to “Fred Flintstone” the car, which I found distracting and kind of weird.

These entirely minor quibbles aside, I found this show deeply troubling in all the right ways. My children saw it with me, and when I asked my son (age 8) what he thought of it, he said, “It bothered me.”

“What bothered you?”

“The racism and the sexism and the murders. I liked the dancing, though.”

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