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The American Dream?

Theatre Tulsa’s version of Ragtime tackles turn-of-the-century growing pains, mixing real-life historical figures with fictional characters to dramatize issues that remain prominent today.

Lindsay Morris
July 29, 2017

It’s always fun to see a live show. And when you get great music, great acting and a little American history thrown in to boot, you can’t go wrong. That’s what you can expect when you see Theatre Tulsa’s performance of Ragtime.

Based on the 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime tells the story of three groups in New York in the early 20th century: African-American, upper-class suburbanites and Eastern European immigrants. “The story intertwines real-life characters like Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington and Sigmund Freud through these families’ lives during an epic, growing period in American history,” says Sara Phoenix, executive artistic director for Theatre Tulsa.

Phoenix, who grew up acting in Theatre Tulsa and returned to the group five years ago after being involved in shows across the country, says Ragtime is one of her all-time favorite shows.

“It was hugely successful on Broadway,” she says. “I got to see it on Broadway when it opened. I knew at that time I had to do the show sometime in my future.”

Ragtime was adapted for the stage by acclaimed playwright Terrence McNally with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. “It is one of the most impactful pieces in musical theater history,” Phoenix says. “It has an incredible musical score.”

Filled with pageantry, emotion and hope, the original production was called “a triumph for the stage” by Time magazine, and “the best musical in 20 years” by the International Herald Tribune.

The name of the show is based on a musical style that peaked in popularity between 1895-1918, a style that is incorporated some into the show. The main trait of ragtime music is its syncopated, or “ragged” rhythm. Music lovers should enjoy the unique, lively score.

Theater-goers will also find interesting ties between the historical setting of the play and current events. Set in the early 1900s, Ragtime reveals that many similarities exist between that time period and today. 

“There are so many things we deal with today — being the other person [the immigrant or a minority], dealing with adversity, dealing with family dynamics, falling in and out of love with people, finding inspiration in leaders who are leading people toward social justice,” Phoenix says. “All of those themes are explored, were relevant at the beginning of the 20th century, and are relevant today.”

The mix of ethnicities in the Ragtime storyline has allowed Theatre Tulsa to bring in one of its most multicultural casts ever.
The mix of ethnicities in the Ragtime storyline has allowed Theatre Tulsa to bring in one of its most multicultural casts ever.

Ragtime follows the stories of three groups, which unfold mainly through three characters: Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician, representing African-Americans; Mother, the matriarch of a white upper-class family in New Rochelle, representing New York upper-class suburbanites; and Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, representing Eastern European immigrants. 

The mix of ethnicities in the storyline has allowed Theatre Tulsa to bring in one of its most multicultural casts ever. “We have a cast of 65 people onstage of all ethnicities. We have a large African-American cast,” she says. 

With the diversity and talent that Tulsa entertainers can offer, the show promises a great ride from start to finish. The production is full of strong actors with incredible voices. “This cast is one of the strongest casts I have ever worked with on the Tulsa stage,” Phoenix says. “We have professional performers who have worked all over the world who have come out to do this show with us.”

Audience members should come prepared to go on a journey. “Once the first notes are played, you get swept into the lives of these characters,” Phoenix says. It’s only fitting, then, that one of the most memorable scores in the production is “Journey On.”

“The characters and their stories will just take you with them on this sweeping journey. You will be moved by the story and impressed by the talent.”

With just shy of 100 years in existence, Theatre Tulsa has continued to be a mainstay for quality stage performances in Green Country. It’s a legacy that Phoenix is happy to partake in.

“It’s so fulfilling that we’ve been producing quality theater for 95 years,” Phoenix says.

Tulsa Performing Arts Center
110 E. 2nd St. | Tulsa
Aug. 18-19: 8 p.m.
Aug. 20: 2 p.m.
Aug. 25-26: 8 p.m.
Aug. 27: 2 p.m.
Aug. 31-Sept. 1-2: 8 p.m.
Sept. 3: 2 p.m.