The Tony Award-winning musical “Ragtime” just finished its run at Pepperdine University this week and if you missed it, you missed a staging rivaling any musical or theatrical production you’d find on Broadway. University students continued their tradition of providing outstanding acting, signing, staging and musical performances for local Malibu audiences to enjoy.
The musical “Ragtime”—based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow—was also made into a movie in 1981 and finally a Broadway musical in the late 1990s. The show takes place in the early 1900s and touches on themes of immigration, the American Dream and racial injustice—issues as relevant today as they were 100 years ago when the action takes place. The historical fiction, with its backdrop of ragtime music—popular at the time, weaves in real life figures of the day, including Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Booker T. Washington. The original Broadway production won four Tonys.
“Ragtime” is an ambitious show for any theater department. Pepperdine talent in all areas, from costumes, vocals, staging and orchestra, pulled it off like professionals.
Music Professor Pierre Tang conducted the 28-piece orchestra and served as musical director.
“This show still has such shocking relevance to today’s social situation,” Tang described. “The school has embraced such diversity in terms of race and socioeconomic status. Yes, this show seems daunting for us because of the magnitude of profundity. This is an extremely complex show in terms of the music. It’s very difficult to play.” Tang added the show’s demanding orchestration called for 28 musicians—usually they would need only half the players. This production used three keyboards. One musician tripled on banjo, mandolin and guitar, and a full host of brass instruments were used to signify the beginning of ragtime. The students got the score in mid-October, but devoted rehearsals to just two weeks before opening night. The orchestra was made up of freshmen to seniors, but because the school’s music program has few music majors, many performers were music minors, “good souls” or musically gifted students who wanted to devote their time. So many musical parts were needed for the full, rich orchestration that four external musicians were brought in to complete the pit orchestra.
The outstanding cast of 45 were all students, save for three parts that were played by small children. They began rehearsals in September.
Cast member Malone Blaich has been a performer for “most of my life.” The 20-year-old junior from Kansas City, Missou., called “Ragtime” one of her favorite musicals.
“I’m a chorus member, but being in the chorus is just as impactful as anything else,” she said. “It’s such an important story. Coming a year after the Borderline shooting, where we lost one of our students—we’re telling a story that needs to be heard.”
The show was Chase Perry’s first musical at Pepperdine. The 19-year-old sophomore from Hawthorne said being in it was “a dream come true, especially in such an impactful musical.
“It’s been an eye-opening experience because there are a lot of political things that are relevant now that took place 100 years ago and yet it still rings true now,” he said.
As one of the show’s leads, Noah Archibald, a 22-year-old senior majoring in theater and music, went the method acting route by growing a beard for his role as an immigrant.
“It’s been a joy,” Archibald said. “Tackling a show with this topic and weight to it brings challenges. Before the show, I didn’t deal much with politics, but seeing the world through someone’s eyes who’s brand new to America and the hope they bring and finding out that maybe America is not all it’s chalked up to be, unfortunately, is still relevant today. It’s uncomfortable, but these conversations have to be had. You have to be an active participant. You can’t ignore what’s happening.”
The captivating George Preston, 21, a junior from Mobile, Ala., said, “It was an honor to tell a story still relevant today. This is starting a conversation that needs to be heard.”
“Seeing how the community has reacted has filled my heart,” offered lead actress Leyla Dillig, 19, from Stuttgart, Germany. “This is the first show that Pepperdine has done in a while with controversial topics and trying to make a change.”
All six performances of Ragtime were sold out. This spring the music department will present two operas. Tickets are available through the Smothers Theater.