This weekend, the Charleston Light Opera Guild strayed from their normal fare of glitz and glam to delve into a more complex and gut-wrenching portion of American history with “Ragtime.” Still culturally poignant today, in an America of closed borders and maligned kneeling athletes, “Ragtime” easily hits a nerve as a polarized nation draws nearer to midterm elections.
The musical is a slow starter, as back stories of the characters wander off into rabbit-hole tangents that seem like they might never converge. Vignettes of historical characters meant to ground the story in time often only seem to distract from the intricate character-driven tale.
The first act is light on action and heavy on musical monologues, sometimes in third person. Theater-goers who expect the usual grandiose sets and bombastic dance numbers of past Guild/Clay Center collaborations may be disappointed.
If those expectations can be set aside, the story begins to come together midway through the first act, as the human drama unfolds touchingly through love and relationships that cross the boundary of social norms.
Through happenstance and trials, three families find their lives inextricably tangled. Kristen Pennington as the beautiful Mother, a character of wealth and privilege, opens her home to Sarah (Amelia Legg-Coleman), a young African-American woman who has found herself pregnant by up-and-coming ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Kevin Hardy).
Those storylines ebb and flow with that of immigrant Tateh (Brett Short) and his ailing daughter (Emma Berger). Sometimes, the tie that binds the stories seems tenuous; but just when it seems as though the thread will be lost, a sharp plot twist slams the characters back together again.
Plagued by microphone issues that seem to haunt Guild shows at times, whole chunks of dialogue and songs were lost to static, muffling, interference or microphones that were simply not turned on at the proper time. When the numbers did come together, though, they were glorious to behold.
Some of the more outstanding numbers were “Journey On,” “Till We Reach that Day,” “Our Children” and “Back to Before.” With a huge ensemble cast and wealth of talent, there is no shortage of enjoyable and moving musicality in “Ragtime.”
The set is barren and stark, and scenes are changed with a bare minimum of props. However, the costumes are superb — not only accurate and period-specific, but washed in subtle palettes that delineate the class and social standings of the characters without a word. The costumes are truly a magnificent testament to the power of understated color and careful detailing.
“Ragtime” is not the average theater fare to grace the Charleston stage, and as such, I recommend you see it. It may not be the evening of entertaining musical theater you expected, but it may be what we all need to see.
“Ragtime” shows at the Clay Center at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 9 and 10 and 2 p.m. on Nov. 11.