For Kent Overshown and Lindsay Roberts, a dream comes true Friday as they take the stage in Diamond Head Theatre’s season-opening production of “Ragtime,” he as Coalhouse Walker Jr. and she as Sarah.
The dream began for them in 2009, as Overshown and Roberts auditioned for those roles in the “Ragtime” Broadway revival. The original Broadway production had opened in 1998, run for two years and received four Tony Awards — including one for Audra McDonald as Sarah. Overshown and Roberts, who made it past the initial round and were invited to return for callbacks, were paired up and worked as a team through the rest of the audition process. Though they didn’t land on Broadway that year, they’ve been friends ever since, working together in national touring company productions of “Memphis” and “Porgy & Bess.”
Now Hawaii gets to see what they can do with these prominent roles, which remain richly relevant as a take on the African-American experience — and, more widely, the American experience — in U.S. history.
“We’ve always wanted to play opposite each other (in “Ragtime”), so it really is amazing for us to come full circle,” Roberts said, relaxing near the back of the theater last week while other members of the cast were arriving for rehearsals.
“RAGTIME”Presented by Diamond Head Theatre
>> Where: Diamond Head Theatre, 520 Makapuu Ave.
>> When: 7:30 p.m. today; continues 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 15; also 3 p.m. Sept. 30 and Oct. 7
>> Admission: $15-$50
>> Info: 733-0274, diamondheadtheatre.com
“‘Ragtime’ has beautiful music, a gorgeous score, a beautiful story; there’s great dancing; and the theatricality of the production — music and lighting — is great to see,” she said.
“This is a story about the American dream,” Overshown added, looking very much the part of a smooth and dapper turn-of-the-20th-century musician, even in modern street clothes.
Overshown describes the story as being “for all folks, not just the folks who came here and took the land, but the people who came to try to live up to this American dream and about them becoming sort of disillusioned — and the fight for that American dream and the fight for that equality.”
”It’s always wonderful to be in a show where you can play some truths, where you can speak some truths,” he added. “I think this show does that.”
“RAGTIME” IS Broadway’s musical take on E.L. Doctorow’s historical novel of the same name, published in 1975. It follows three sets of characters in the first few years of the 20th century.
Coalhouse and Sarah are African-Americans in New York who are cautiously making their way in what is unquestionably a white man’s world.
Positioned somewhere near the tip of the American pyramid of wealth, power and privilege is a white family whose members Doctorow identifies only by their relationships to each other. Father is so wealthy he can take off for a year to accompany Adm. Peary to the North Pole; Mother is accustomed to having Father make decisions for her. Mother’s Younger Brother is searching for something to make him complete — maybe a fling with a showgirl, maybe making bombs for the anarchists. Grandfather is so out of touch with life outside the realm of the leisure class that he asks a cutting-edge African-American musician if the man knows any “coon songs.”
A ship bringing immigrants from Europe crosses paths with a ship transporting Father to the North Pole. On that ship is Tateh, a Jewish artist, who is entering the country — legally — with his young daughter in search of a better life.
The three sets of characters are separated by race, class and geography as the story opens. Circumstances bring them together.
Historical figures are an important part of this story, and the musical presents vignettes as part of a pageant. They include pioneering automobile maker Henry Ford, famed illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini, the wealthy financier J.P. Morgan, African-American leader Booker T. Washington, Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman and showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, aka “The Girl on the Velvet Swing,” who became a national celebrity when her millionaire husband shot and killed her ex-lover on the rooftop theater of Madison Square Garden.
Various characters experience Henry Ford’s development of the modern assembly line, the early struggles of the American labor movement, the dawn of the movie business and the sinking of the Titanic.
Throughout, the meandering, syncopated format of ragtime music enhances the production.
OVERSHOWN AND ROBERTS agree that many themes percolating through “Ragtime” are as relevant in 2017 as they were when the show premiered on Broadway in 1998, when Doctorow’s novel was published in 1975, and during the heyday of ragtime music more than a century ago.
As other members of the cast gathered at the rehearsal, the two revealed another shared link to “Ragtime”: It’s the show that got them interested in musical theater, long before they met at that Broadway audition.
Overshown was 14 when a regional production of “Ragtime” within driving distance of his home in Oakland, Calif., needed to replace an ensemble member. Could he learn the material almost overnight? Yes, he could, and yes, he did. The actor playing Coalhouse in that production was James Monroe Iglehart — currently performing in “Hamilton” on Broadway. Iglehart became Overshown’s inspiration, mentor and friend.
“I’ve emulated my career and what I do off of him,” Overshown said. “We contact each other periodically. Every once in a while on Facebook, we send each other smiles or whatnot.”
Overshown played Coalhouse for the first time himself when he was a senior at the University of Michigan.
Roberts confided that she was won over by the original Broadway production.
“I remember when it came out in 1998 and was made into the cast album … reading all the libretto and knowing the show, and falling in love with Audra McDonald,” she said. “Sarah is always on a personal level a dream role for me to play and one I love to return to, because of the story.”
“The script tells Sarah’s story but also leaves me as an actress with a lot of questions about why she makes some of the choices she does,” Roberts said. “I think there’s a lot of innocence and purity in her, but then a lot of decisions we watch and we can’t rationalize — is she a good person or not? But I think everything for her comes from a very pure place, sometimes a naive place, and a place of love.”