Is Ragtime the Pasadena Playhouse's Most Ambitious Show Ever?

We asked Pasadena Playhouse producing artistic director Danny Feldman

Published : Thursday, January 31, 2019 | 6:57 AM

The Pasadena Playhouse is about to debut what is arguably the most ambitious show in its storied 101-year history. Ragtime runs from February 5th to March 3rd at the Playhouse, and tickets are on sale now.

The musical is set in early 20th century New York and tells the stories of three very different families and their pursuit of the American Dream. Despite it being written 22 years ago about an even earlier time in American history, the dialogue and themes feel as relevant as ever.

“It is quite a large show both in terms of cast, orchestra and ambition and it’s very hard for theaters to pull it off,” says Danny Feldman, producing artistic director of the Playhouse.

In fact, the show’s Broadway version which debuted in January 1998 was extravagant, with staging that included fireworks and a working Model T automobile.

At the Pasadena Playhouse, over 100 local employees have been hired to work on the production. The show features a 21-person cast and 17-person live orchestra. It’s like nothing the Playhouse has ever done before, yet it doesn’t feel out of character.

The Pasadena Community Playhouse was founded in 1917 by Gilmor Brown. With the financial help from over 1,000 Pasadena citizens, Brown was able to purchase land at 39 S El Molino and the current landmarked theater opened its doors in 1925.  The Pasadena Playhouse was recognized as the State Theater of California in 1937. Some of America’s greatest playwrights, like Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, premiered plays here.

In the 1920s and 30s, the Playhouse was called “the Star Factory” for the amount of talent that was discovered on its stage. The Playhouse also operated one of the top acting schools in America, with Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, and Sally Struthers (to name a few) coming through its doors.

“The building was paid for by the community, the property was bought by the community…and even the actors were all local community members,” says Feldman. He mentions a line from the records of a 1917 meeting regarding the Playhouse: “great communities need great cultural institutions.”

Pasadena sustains an impressive number of cultural institutions for a population of roughly 140,000 people. The Playhouse can be seen as a perfect symbol of this quality (fact?): a 100-year-old community-created theater that has continued to show important work through thick and thin (in spite of some interludes brought on by financial travail).

Feldman has set out to restore the educational programs the Playhouse had, much in the spirit of its reputation as a breeding ground for A-list talent. The Playhouse is hosting a Broadway musical class taught by an NYU Masters professor later this year, as well as a story time theater class in which 5- and 6-year-olds will actually put on a show.

The Playhouse also has a program called Community@Play, where thousands of free tickets are given away to those who may cannot afford to attend theater. When he came aboard in 2016, Feldman lowered the Playhouse’s starting ticket price to $25 for this program.

For the community, by the community, and back to the community.

Go see the most ambitious production in the history of one of America’s most important theaters; see Ragtime at the Pasadena Playhouse.

The Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 S El Molino Ave. Get your tickets at www.pasadenaplayhouse.org/event/ragtime, or call (626) 356-7529.
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