By Teresa Contini
Ragtime marks David Bahgat’s second appearance as the director of one of Gallery Player’s premiere productions. In 2015, he directed the acclaimed production of Les Miserables. Fans will also remember him in the role of Motel the Tailor in the 2016 production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Outside of the JCC’s stage, he has directed West Side Story, Grease, Hairspray at Columbus Children’s Theatre, Heathers (Imagine Productions), Bye Bye Birdie at SRO Theatre Company, and numerous productions at Upper Arlington High School and Fort Hayes Career Center.
“Ragtime is a classic musical, with a timeless story,” says Bahgat. “It encompasses so many issues that are facing us as Americans today. The issues of immigration, the black lives matter movement, politics, are all in the forefront right now. They are the issues that Ragtime discusses as well.”
Based on E.L. Doctorow’s popular novel and written by noted playwright Terrence McNally, Ragtime is the winner of the 1998 Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Musical Score and a 13-time Tony Award nominated musical. With artful lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty, this turn-of-the-century story set in New York City is told through a rich, complex score that skillfully mingles bold marches, delicate waltzes, upbeat banjo tunes, soulful gospel tunes, ragtime rhythms of Harlem and elaborate anthems to depict each of the characters through colorful, distinct musical styles.
The Associated Press, in lauding Ragtime, exclaims, “Surely there are not many opening numbers better than the intoxicating first moments of RAGTIME!” Bahgat agrees. In sharing a personal highlight of the show, he explains: “The opening number (Prologue) is the first moment that comes to mind. It weaves together all the principal characters in movement and song. It’s one of the few moments the entire company is onstage together. Ragtime is special because the production’s success is in the hands of the ensemble. There is so much the ensemble does — they hardly ever leave the stage.”
As this new era begins, America is replete with change and uncertainty while glimmering with possibilities and promise. Ragtime tells the story of three American tales— that of a stifled, upper-class wife represented by Mother; a determined, Jewish immigrant from Latvia represented by Tateh; and a young Harlem musician represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr. — all united by their courage, compassion and belief in a better day and a better tomorrow. In their search, they confront the realities of the times and thejuxtaposition of: poverty and opulence, prejudice and freedom, dreams and desperation as both limitations and opportunities. As each of these lives intersection, the characters find commonality in family, love and hope.
The cast features: Jeb Bigelow as Father, Amari Ingram as Colehouse Walker Jr. ,Kate Merrick as Mother and Chris Rusen as Tateh. Theatre-goers will recognize historic figures such as Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Stanford White, Harry Kendall Thaw, Admiral Peary, Matthew Henson, and Emma Goldman represented in the show.
Bigelow, who portrays Father, cites Ragtime as a favorite musical and aspired to work with Bahgat after seeing his artistry in Les Miserables. Most recently, Bigelow has performed in Sordid Lives and Yank! at Evolution Theatre. A familiar face in Gallery Players productions, he has been seen in A New Brain, Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Rags, Into the Woods and Bye Bye Birdie.
“Ragtime is a beautiful story about race and immigration that shows how far society has come in certain ways, and how much it’s stayed the same in others,” says Bigelow. “Father is a character that means well, but follows more traditional values that now would seem fairly outdated. You can see that in the way he treats his wife and son in particular. It is safe to assume this is aligned with how his father treated him and his mother growing up.”
Although Merrick’s role as Mother is her first appearance with Gallery Players, she has performed locally with Vaud-Villities in 2015 and 2016, and SNAP in 2016. As Mother, she “hopes theatre-goers know that Mother, in the beginning of the show, is just becoming aware of herself as a person outside of her husband. Someone who has worth in her own values and passions. Through this awareness, she starts to trust her own intuition and things unfold from there.”
Amari Ingram describes his character, Colehouse Walker Jr., as “still in the process of discovering who he is. While some would say he is stubborn — determined would more accurately define his true nature. His tenacity to make things right is what drives him.”
Ragtime is Ingram’s first show with the Gallery Players; his other theatrical work includes productions with Short North Stage, Actors’ Theatre of Columbus, and The Ohio State University’s Lyric and Opera Theatre.
Ingram understands the depth of the responsibility that accompanies portraying his character. “I knew that Colehouse Walker, Jr. was a dream role that would be a challenge to overcome vocally and dramatically. My true passion for the role was not yet solidified; however, until we experienced the tumultuous political climate surrounding the 2016 election. Sentiments surrounding race relations currently eerily resembled that of the period highlighted in this musical,” he noted. “It was a story that had visceral meaning both now and in the turn of the 20th century. Journeying to the life of Colehouse is — unfortunately — not a farfetched venture for me to undertake. As such, telling his story is not just for the sake of hearing it. It gives hope to the lives of people that look like me, that look like Colehouse. So, in some respects, it is a duty of mine to bring this role of life.”
The show’s eclectic music is was what drew Merrick to Ragtime, as she credits “the composer and lyricist for doing a tremendous job of capturing the heart of these characters and their journey through song. I love the diverse characters represented and that they find a way to connect to each other,” she says. “It speaks of the hard and hopeful road to unity. Theatre-goers should see Ragtime for the talent of the cast and crew, the heartfelt music, the emotional rollercoaster ride the story will take you on, and a potential history lesson for those who don’t know much about America during the early 20th Century,” said Merrick.
Ingram, too, offers a commentary on Ragtime: “This show allows us to delve into the lives of people who call themselves Americans. We discover that a divided people inevitably suffer, whereas those that forsake prejudices are capable of tremendous progress.”
Ragtime tells us a story of the past and while reminding us of today.
Performances are February 25 through March 12. Tickets can be purchased online at jccgalleryplayers.org and are $20 for JCC members, $25 for non-members, $18 for senior members, $23 for senior non-members, $15 for children under the age of 18 an students with a valid ID. Groups of 20 receive $5 off per ticket.