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PSU Choirs Present “Ragtime” in Concert

By Sarah Liebowitz; A&E Editor
On April 21, 2017

On April 22 at 7 p.m. and April 23 at 4 p.m., PSU choirs will present a concert version of the musical “Ragtime” in the Hanaway Theatre.

The story begins in an upper-class neighborhood of New Rochelle. The skies are blue and hazy. Everyone is rich and white. According to the affluent residents, “there were no negroes and there were no immigrants.” But it’s 1902 in New York, and the country is speeding forward faster than a Model T.

“Ragtime” premiered on Broadway in 1998, with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty. It was nominated for 13 Tony awards.

PSU’s production will be a concert version of the show. It will be performed with a full orchestra, no costume or set, and minimal staging. “We get to focus on the music and the lyrics completely,” said Sarah Kelly, a theater arts major who plays the role of Sarah. “When you strip it down, we get to focus on what we want the audience to take away from it. To tell the whole truth is almost more necessary.”

The musical tells the story of three groups living in New York in the early 20th century: white upper-class families from New Rochelle, African Americans from Harlem, and immigrants from the Lower East Side.

The groups become perpetually intertwined when a New Rochelle family takes in a black woman named Sarah and her infant child. Ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker makes frequent visits their home to court Sarah.

Meanwhile, Latvian immigrant Tateh struggles to make a life for his little girl by selling silhouetted portraits.

Famous historical celebrities such as Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, anarchist Emma Goldman and the scandalous chorus girl Evelyn Nesbitt, loom above the action. Eventually, their lives get mixed up in the story as well.

The show is conducted by Dan Perkins, PSU’s director of choral activities. Perkins said he first fell in love with the show when he saw previews for the original production in Toronto.

“I love the depth, variety, and complexity of the music,” he said. “I think the composer captures the essence of early 20th century style, but expresses it through contemporary musical theater style.”

Although the music contains a splattering of the actual ragtime, many of the songs are more recognizable as contemporary musical theater pieces. Songs also incorporate styles from gospel, march and cakewalk.

Perkins said that the story of “Ragtime” is compelling and very relevant today. It reflects current political struggles with immigration, as well as dealing with racism, women’s rights, anti-Semitism and the contradiction of wealth and poverty.

“I knew that the students and I would be able to more effectively connect with these issues through our study and preparation of this incredible musical,” Perkins said.

The students in university chorale completed contextual research on the show. They also delved into their own family history, searching out immigrant roots. Students found family connections in Ireland, Western Europe, Lebanon, Russia, Puerto Rico and more.

The show’s concert format opens up opportunities for non-traditional casting. Roland DuBois, who plays Coalhouse Walker, said that race is a particular challenge in this production. “I've had to look deeper than the race of my character to find the more universal traits, i.e. passion, musicality, inner strength, he possesses so that, despite my being white, I can play Coalhouse as truthfully as possible.”

Sarah Kelly agreed that representing a different race can be difficult. “That’s a huge challenge vocally, and not having that culture behind me. It was a hard character to find, but I wanted to do it as truthfully as I could.”

The role of Sarah is also deeply emotional, weighed down with pain and fear. Kelly said that “I have to go to a really horrible place,” she said. “I use my loved ones as motivation.”

PSU’s production will make audiences smile, and it will make their hearts ache. It will leave them humming the tunes for days. More importantly, it will leave them with questions.

“What does it mean to be an American today, to live in America today, and what is our place in the world?” That’s the big question, according to Perkins.

Perkins hopes that after audiences see the show, “we will all be inspired, like the characters in “Ragtime,” to be more courageously compassionate as we struggle with the challenges of our time.”


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