Starting a new season

Ragtime chases the American Dream as it kicks off ZACH's new season

Ragtime chases the American Dream as it kicks off ZACH's new season

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Kyle Scatliffe as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. Photo by Kirk R. Tuck
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Brooke Silverstein as Tateh’s Daughter & Andrew Foote as Tateh. Photo by Kirk R. Tuck
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Kia Dawn Fulton as Sarah & Kyle Scatliffe as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. Photo by Kirk R. Tuck
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Cast of RAGTIME Photo by Kirk R. Tuck
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Austin has been highly anticipating the opening of the new Topfer Theatre at ZACH. On Oct. 17, the first production on the Karen Kuykendall Stage in the new state-of-the-art theater premiered: Ragtime.

The Tony Award-winning musical, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, is perfectly suited to welcome in ZACH's new era with the Topfer, showcasing the new performance space and showcasing the incredible talent of the ZACH company.

More than 50 of Austin’s finest actors, supported by a glorious orchestra, tell the story of how we forged a nation that all people could call home. Bold anthems, Harlem ragtime and delicate waltzes lift our aspirations for all that we can and will be.

The production's all-star cast includes: Jill Blackwood, Jamie Goodwin, Andrew Cannata, Kia Dawn Fulton, David Jarrott, Meredith McCall, Roderick Sanford, Jennifer Young and Janis Stinson, with New York guest artists Andrew Foote as Tateh and Kyle Scatliffe as Coalhouse Walker, Jr.

Producing Artistic Director Dave Steakley says that he selected Ragtime to inaugurate the Topfer Theatre because its epic scale befits the grand opening, involving large segments of the community with its cast of 50 actors, and allowing the company to use all of the new technology invested into the Topfer.

Steakley adds other reasons as well.

It has never been produced locally, it was written by native Texan Terrence McNally, it creates the opportunity to have a full orchestra for the first time in our history, it has roles for youth to perform, it has a multi-racial cast and thematically it has much to say about this time in ZACH’s life and in our lives as Americans, as some characters welcome and embrace change, while others struggle with it.

In planning the first season at the new Topfer Theatre, I focused on plays and musicals which involve dreams of some kind — chasing the American dream, dreams to which one aspires, literal dreams while sleeping — and the theater as a place where dreams are realized.

Dreams are certainly realized, as well as destroyed, in Ragtime. Focusing on three groups of Americans — wealthy white families, Jewish immigrants and African-Americans — the opening number reveals how each group keeps to themselves, distanced from each other. As the story unfolds, however, their personal lives begin to intertwine in intimate and powerful ways.

Set in the early 1900s, the story is sometimes difficult to watch with the intense racism, discrimination and sexism that pervaded the era. Some phrases and derogatory names make the audience wince; yet at the same time, many of the themes and struggles are extremely timely and relevant to our society and life today.

Ragtime raises questions that remain highly topical: What is the "American Dream," and who has the right to claim it? What does it mean to be an American? How are human beings changed by shifting social landscapes, by each other, and by the power of love?

Steakley says that the world post turn-of-the-century in 1900 and in 2000 both was, and is, evolving at a pace behind anything known before. "In Ragtime some characters welcome, accept and actively seek personal and societal transformation; they revel in newfound liberation with their aspiration focused toward the future."

"Other characters," he continues, "struggle with and reject change, ending up feeling alienated and dissatisfied. Everyone is seeking meaning in these times, and I believe you will find the themes in Ragtime are so present that it feels like it was written for us in this moment."

The casting is magnificent, and the musical numbers soaring. Kyle Scatliffe as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. controls the stage completely every time he is present, and the more heartrending numbers of both Jill Blackwood as Mother and Kia Dawn Fulton as Sarah are unforgettable. The intensity of the storylines is broken up with some lighter moments, particularly enchanting is the song "Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc." by Andrew Foote as Tateh, as well as the baseball number "What a Game."

As a musical genre, ragtime was a relatively brief-lived form that was only popular for about twenty years, before it gave birth to jazz. Prior to the 1890s, black musicians began shaping and creating ragtime, with its then revolutionary use of syncopation, in bars and on stages. By 1893 the musical form was more widespread, as ragtime players converged on Chicago for the World's Fair. Texas native Scott Joplin is known as the "King of Ragtime" and he developed it into a respected art form, leaving a legacy that future musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington evolved into jazz.

Ragtime's moment in the sun disappeared, but, as ZACH is showing, ragtime never died.

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Performances of Ragtime continue through Sunday,  Nov. 8, 2012. They occur Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. To order tickets call 512-476-0541 ext. 1 or visit www.zachtheatre.org. Tickets range from $35-$65. Student Rush Tickets: $18 one hour before showtime (with valid ID).