Harry Houdini makes an appearance. So does Henry Ford.
J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman. Admiral Robert Peary. Booker T. Washington.
These real-life characters rub elbows with the well-heeled, the immigrants and the African-Americans who inhabit the world E.L. Doctorow created in his 1975 novel “Ragtime.”
Local theatergoers will be transported back to 1906 America beginning tonight when Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre stages the Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty musical adaption of the novel.
In terms of plot summary, “Ragtime” seems simple enough. It’s the story of turn-of-the-20th-century America, as told through the eyes and experiences of three distinct social classes: a wealthy white family, a family of Jewish immigrants and an African-American musician. The real life characters from America’s history add to the tapestry as well.
The musical, which made its Broadway debut in 1998 and went on to win four Tony Awards, is in many ways a perfect cap to Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre’s 45th season, said director Kirk Mouser.
“This is the cherry on top of what has been an exciting season at Coeur d’Alene,” he said. “This is my fifth season coming to Coeur d’Alene, and I have such a great appreciation for the design team and the level of talent that comes from all over the country here every summer to create one of the finest musical theater productions on the West Coast. Really, there’s some incredible work done here.”
For Mouser, some of that work will involve directing a large cast, close to 40 actors – including local favorites Patrick Treadway, Reed McColm, Andrew Ware Lewis, Callie McKinney Cabe, Jessica Skerritt and Dane Stokinger – and a production in many ways as epic as the work he did in Coeur d’Alene productions of “Miss Saigon” and “Les Misérables.”
“It really calls for us to create a sense of grandeur, to show America in 1906 with the industrial revolution, and the immigrants, the working class, everyone struggling to get their piece of the American dream,” Mouser said.
The opening scene sets the stage beautifully, he said, as we’re introduced to the characters within those three social classes.
“It’s really fascinating to see the social struggles, the cultural struggles, the racial struggles intermingled with this really beautiful love story and gorgeous music – ragtime, blues, gospel, and all the traditional musical theater fare that audiences walk away humming,” Mouser said.
Doctorow’s book is hefty. The 1981 movie version clocked in at nearly three hours. But Mouser says McNally did an excellent job of translating the story into a briskly moving musical.
“The scenes move, almost as if you’re watching a movie, they move one after another after another, so you never have time to get bored,” Mouser said. “It builds, it crescendos all the way to the end. I know when I saw the show for the first time, I was in my seat, and when the curtain came down, I thought to myself, I don’t want it to end. I think people will definitely be engaged.”