Oh, America the Dream. America the Great.

America is a melting pot not only for people but also for success, innovation, and new life transformations. Though, somehow, amid our pursuit to achieve success, we tend to forget the experiences of those who came before us and the experiences that shaped the foundation of America as we know it today. It’s hard to think about the effects of the past while maintaining an awareness of the present, especially considering the fights of recent years to overcome troubling social experiences in pursuit of equal rights, accessible health care for all, and more balanced economic structures. The unfortunate truth is that the same patterns of struggle we see today were also common 100 years ago during the early 20th century. Seeing Piedmont Players Theatre‘s production of Ragtime (a musical based on a 1975 novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow) has me questioning how much our culture has progressed. With 61 years of experience, Piedmont Players knows how to bring to life such a timeless piece as Ragtime. The production was nothing short of insightful.

Piedmont Players understands the importance of education, exposure, and representation. Set between 1906 and the start of World War I, Ragtime tells the story of three groups of people in the United States, with each group’s story focusing on a central character: ragtime musician Coalhouse Walk Jr. (Michael A. Brooks) representing African Americans; a matriarch known simply as Mother (Wendy Weant) representing upper-class, White suburbanites; and Tateh (Paul Reeves Leopard), a Jewish father from Latvia, representing the journey of Eastern European immigrants. The show also incorporates historical figures such as Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and Emma Goldman.

The realistic aesthetic of the set is quite impressive and serves to make American history feel alive. Designed by John Vanderwoude, the set is well crafted and incorporates minimalistic accents like a mahogany wood-painted staircase and wagons to haul the clothes of wandering immigrants. It is a straightforward representation of what one would expect to see in the varied lives of our characters of the early 1900s. Set changes incorporated into the action of the scenes and a simple yet effective lighting design by Jennifer O’Kelly all helped to further immerse the audience in the world of the show. The use of a white backdrop for projected images also informed the audience while maintaining the simplicity of the set.

Ashley Ward’s costume designs are spot on. Tateh’s Act II costume is especially remarkable, adorning the would-be filmmaker in the quintessential fashion of the newly recognized and developing artist he becomes. The beret, neck scarf, white button-down shirt, and rain boots scream the promise of opportunity!

As the show progressed, I became more enthralled by each individual’s life story. Leslie Roberts as Sarah, Coalhouse’s love and the mother to his child, sang like an angel. Her voice lifted the room in even the most devastating scenes, decorating the stage with the vocal jewels of beautiful octaves. Especially enjoyable was the reunion scene between Sarah and Coalhouse, which expressed a more intimate relationship between the two. As the mother of an “illegitimate” child, one could assume that Sarah would have every reason to reject an optimistic nature, yet she prevailed as matters got more intense with Coalhouse.

The show’s story was hard to grasp at times because the material is so complex. Ragtime alternates between multiple characters’ histories while trying to explore the truth of how America has become the great incubator of success that it is known to be today. Through Tateh, Coalhouse, and Mother, the story was framed by characters each representing a different class level. Tateh, as a lower-class immigrant starting from nothing, used the nature of his previously acquired survival tactics to dream up an honorable lifestyle of turning silhouette picture books into a successful career of movie directing. Coalhouse and Sarah, however, watched as their lives were disrupted after Coalhouse’s car was damaged by a group of White racists. Mother expressed a great deal of inner conflict about class. She dressed in rich clothes, spoke with crisp articulation, and was clearly financially sufficient, as seen by her ability to house maids, hire pianists like Coalhouse, and take in children like Sarah’s newborn child.

Brooks stole the show as Coalhouse with his assertive presence and ability to gently yet commandingly own the stage. Also to be mentioned is Tateh’s song “A Shtetl Iz Amereke;” in which Leopard expressed the most complete representation of his character. Weant’s Mother was irresistible as she used the calm and nurturing nature of her character to reflect the need to support those around her. Ful cast bios can be found here.

The orchestra, directed by John Stafford, was quite impressive as it played a wide array of musical styles, including jazz, gospel, klezmer, a splash of classical, and, of course, ragtime.

Piedmont Players Theatre’s Ragtime leads a conversation about progress by demanding the immediate attention of individuals seeking to make a change. For the perfect feel of a modern classic performed by warm and inviting talent, make your way to Ragtime! The subject matter that this production dives into provides insight into social, economic, and political concerns that were present one hundred years ago and that we continue to address to this day.

Ragtime continues through Sunday, March 13. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.