Immigrants told to leave the U.S. and return to the “cesspools” from which they came. Blacks denied their basic civil rights. Wealthy whites still imagining an America in which neither of the aforementioned groups existed. If this sounds more like the stuff of today’s headlines than a twenty-year-old Broadway musical set over a hundred years in the past, all the more reason to celebrate the stirring big-stage revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Ragtime now earning standing ovations at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre.

Based on E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, with a Tony-winning book by Terrence McNally and a Tony-winning score by Ahrens and Flaherty, Ragtime takes us back a century to an era of historic change in the United States, a time when the country found itself divided between The Haves (well-to-do early 20th-Century White Anglo-Saxon Protestants like Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan, both of whom are supporting characters in Ragtime) and The Have-Nots (working-lass African-Americans and fresh-off-the-boat Eastern European immigrants).

 The Haves may have wanted to believe that “there were no Negroes and there were no immigrants,” but Ragtime’s fictional Mother, Father, Younger Brother, and Little Boy were soon to find out otherwise.

Mother (Christana Rowader) takes in an African-American baby found in her garden along with the child’s unwed mother Sarah (Jessica Mason). Younger brother (John McGavin) becomes inspired by anarchist Emma Goldman (Lisa Dyson) to revolt against the status quo alongside Sarah’s lover, musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Trance Thompson). And Mother’s life becomes intertwined with those of immigrant Tateh (Allen Everman) and his young daughter Little Girl (Carolina Flores) in addition to those already present in her own: Father (John LaLonde), Grandfather (Bob Bell), and Little Boy (Andrew Bar).

 Ragtime manages to be both epic in its cast of major historical figures like illusionist Harry Houdini (Orlando Montes), chorus girl Evelyn Nesbitt (Cheyenne Omani), auto mogul Ford (Tony Winkel), financier Morgan (Jamie Snyder), and African-American educator Booker T. Washington (Donovan Wright) and personal in its focus on Coalhouse’s efforts to win Sarah back, on Tateh and his daughter’s first steps towards becoming Americans, and on Mother’s growing disillusionment with her marriage.

If all these plot threads seem daunting in synopsis, McNally’s compelling book makes each thread surprisingly easy to follow. More significant is the light Ragtime shines on a) where we were vis-à-vis class-and-race relations a century ago, b) how far we have come since then, and c) how far we as a nation have yet to go.

 Greg Hinrichsen directs his cast of twenty-nine (twenty-one fewer than the Broadway original but Candlelight’s biggest ever) with equal attention to spectacle and nuance, and with Julie Lamoureux providing her accustomed expert musical direction, vocal harmonies take flight backed by prerecorded tracks that sound the next best thing to live.

A pair of Candlelight vets and one welcome Pavilion newcomer deliver the evening’s most memorable performances.

 Everman (who’s delighted Claremont audiences in roles as diverse as Guys And Dolls’s Sky Masterson, Bye Bye Birdie’s Albert Peterson, and The Music Man’s Harold Hill) digs deep and soars high as Tateh;

 Rowader, reprising the role that won her a coveted Best Actress Ovation Award two years back, is once again a radiant, richly drawn Mother, her “Back To Before” earning the production’s loudest and most justified cheers;

 and a revelatory McGavin steps out of the Candlelight ensemble and into the spotlight as a man whose awakened political passion matches McGavin’s powerful pipes.

 Thompson’s indomitable Coalhouse, Mason’s wounded Sarah, LaLonde’s hard-as-ice Father, Bell’s crusty Grandfather, and Bar and Flores’s charming Little Boy and Little Girl all make strong impressions, as do featured players Jason Chacon (Willie Conklin), Jeanette Dawson, Isaac James Dawson (Little Coalhouse), Dyson, Madeline Ellingson, Kevin Gasio, DarRand Hall, Patricia Jewell, RaShonda Johnson, Amanda Knight, Montes, Mary Murphy Nelson, Greg Nicholas, Omani, Lauren Patrice, Jabriel Shelton, Snyder, E.Y. Washington, Winkel, and Wright.

 Ragtime’s triple-threat ensemble show off considerable dance prowess (in production numbers like “The Crime Of The Century,” “Getting Ready Rag,” “Atlantic City,” excitingly choreographed by John Vaughan) and vocal chops in “New Music,” “Till We Reach That Day” and more.

Thompson and Mason’s inspiring “Wheels Of A Dream,” Omani and McGavin’s delightfully saucy “Crime Of The Century,” Everman’s spirited “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay Inc.” and his rhapsodic “Gliding,” Everman and Rowader’s touching “Our Children,” and Dyson’s electrifying “The Night That Goldman Spoke At Union Square” and “He Wanted To Say” are all worthy of mention as are Johnson’s powerful solo moments in “Till We Reach That Day” and the baseball-inspired comic relief of “What A Game.”

 Chuck Ketter’s multileveled scenic design evokes turn-of-the-20th-century America from its wealthy enclaves to its tenement slums to its seaside resorts, all vividly lit by Steve Giltner as are the production’s period costumes, from upper class satin and lace to tattered immigrant rags to multicolored show biz garb.

Caleb Shiba is stage manager.

As entertaining as it is enthralling and emotionally eloquent, Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre’s Ragtime proves more timely than ever. Expect your eyes to tear up and your spirits to soar. Expect to stand up and cheer.

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Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd., Claremont. Through February 24. Fridays at 6:00. Saturdays at 11:00 a.m and 6:00. Sundays at 11:00 a.m and 5:00. Also Thursday March 23 at 6:00. Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre tickets include meal and show. Appetizers, desserts, beverages and waiters gratuity are additional. Cocktails, appetizers, entrees, and desserts are to die for and the service courteous and attentive. Reservations: 909 626-1254 ext. 1

–Steven Stanley
January 28, 2018


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