Whether performing a universally recognized musical like Beauty and the Beast  or a less commercially known show like Ragtime (now being presented by Opera House Theatre Company), localizing beloved Broadway productions often comes with the audience expectation to deliver something simultaneously familiar and unique. But sometimes, those lesser-known shows are lesser-known because they contain conceptual issues with which local production companies must contend. It is here that Opera House Theatre Company truly exceeded expectations. Their production of Ragtime was able to overcome musical’s structural flaws to provide a dazzling showcase of high-quality actors and masterful technicians.

Narratively, Ragtime is a story made up of subplots that combine to create a picture of America from the turn of the century to the onset of World War I. We follow an unnamed White and wealthy New York family as we see this period of change slowly unravel their traditional values. We also see a Jewish immigrant named Tateh come to America to build a new life for himself and his daughter as a ragtime musician named Coalhouse Walker Jr. struggles against systemic injustice while trying to build a life for his lover, Sarah, and their son. Intermixed with these major plotlines are the stories of real-life figures: Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, and others, all of whom have their own stories going on in the background to the three main plots of the fictional characters. There is so much going on that the original 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, the 1981 film adaptation by Miloš Forman, and the 1998 Broadway musical all have struggled to balance the story’s sheer narrative weight. The advantage to this, though, is that it does effectively communicate the confusion of this transitional period in American history. And with so many subplots, audiences are bound to have something that they connect with on a personal level.

I am hardly the first critic to point out that Ragtime‘s musical attempt to translate a dense novel into a bombastic theatrical blockbuster is a bit messy. Some subplots work better than others, some characters aren’t fleshed out, there are tone problems, pacing issues, dialogue problems, clunky transitions into musical sequences, and a host of other issues. But this is not to say that the show is a failure; there is a lot about Ragtime that is impressive. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty‘s music, overall, translates turn-of-the-century sensibilities to the Broadway style well. The musical keeps some of the novel’s political bite, and the nature of it provides an opportunity for a diverse cast. Taking the pros and cons together, Ragtime is a challenging show to stage but also an exciting opportunity, providing a chance to earnestly evaluate the work, figure out what works and what doesn’t, and to offer a particular company’s interpretation.

With a production as big as Ragtime, it would be easy for the ensemble members to get lost. Especially when this is a show that, on paper, focuses on showcasing its principal cast. But Opera House Theater Company, between excellent casting and smart directing, has an ensemble made up of distinct personalities. Characters without lines popped off the stage, even as actors occasionally shifted roles from scene to scene. The effect of this was that the world of Ragtime came to life with a lived-in richness and authenticity. The ensemble performances in this regard are helped by Debbie Scheu’s costumes and Terry Collins’ set design. Scheu’s costumes are flawless, not only in their detail but in the variety and their communicability. Given the intricacy of the pieces, I didn’t even catch myself thinking about costume changes until after the show; they were that fluid. Similarly, Collins’ sets are engineering feats. These are massive sets with weight and detail that are still mobile enough to communicate specific locations depending on their placement on stage.

As a showcase for its superbly talented principal cast, Ragtime goes above and beyond. I don’t think anyone who saw Ragtime would deny that Curtis Wiley and Bianca Shaw steal the show as Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Sarah, respectively. Their story is the most tender, the most timely, has the most effect on the narrative progression, and has some of the most dramatic turns. Wiley proved himself an adaptable actor as he followed Coalhouse from a carefree musician to a man prepared to fight for justice. Shaw’s Sarah develops from a character with not much to say into a character with such a command over the audience’s empathy that they were in a state of rapt awe during her solo number (“Your Daddy’s Son”). You can always tell an actor has captivated an audience when there is a slight pause between the end of their song and the applause. Wiley is also a powerful vocal performer. His “Make Them Hear You” was a solo performance with the power of “Can you Hear the People Sing” from Les Misérables. With two such tremendous soloists, you can imagine the awe of the audience anytime we were blessed by Wiley and Shaw singing together (“Wheels of a Dream” and “Sarah Brown Eyes”).

Also impressive was Megan Lewis as Mother (the matriarch of the unnamed, affluent White family). She effectively communicated a woman changing as the world around her did, even if it meant occasionally leaving her husband behind. Lewis is one of the strongest vocalists in the cast, stealing the show with her magnificent solo “Back to Before” and her tender, romantic duet “Our Children.”

Beyond the ensemble and the principal cast, I was impressed with the actors who played the real historical figures, Cindy Colucci as Emma Goldman and Carli Batson as Evelyn Nesbit were particularly adept at living within their parts.

The one technical aspect that I felt let the show down was the sound mixing and audio balancing. At times actors were much too loud for the size and acoustics of Thalian Hall and at other times actors’ lines were lost because they were mixed too low. This problem was lessened as the show went on, but on the night I went, there were still occasional mic problems right into the second act. However, I do appreciate that whoever was operating the sound clearly noticed the issues and actively worked to correct them as the show went on. That level of adaptability is not easy for a show as big and complicated as this and it is to be commended.

Opera House Theatre Company’s production of Ragtime had the unenviable task of taking a messy but dazzling Broadway show and translating it, warts and all, into a production for Wilmington audiences. Aside from some technical issues, it is in the opinion of this critic that they succeeded, delivering a spectacular showcase of a talented, versatile cast and a hard-working crew.

Ragtime continues through Sunday, July 2. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.