Some people are put off by the mixing of art and politics. For everyone else, the musical “Ragtime’’ will be playing at the city-owned Strand Theatre in Dorchester from Sept. 28 to Oct. 7.
Neither the selection of the play nor the choice of venue in a low-income Boston neighborhood happened by accident. The itinerant Fiddlehead Theatre Company and the American Civil Liberties Union, the play’s chief sponsor, figured smartly that the weeks leading up to a presidential election would be a pivotal time for a show exploring the impacts of immigration, poverty, race, and poor working conditions.
“It’s the perfect ACLU play,’’ said Carol Rose, head of the Massachusetts chapter of the rights group.
No one should be worried, however, that the Tony Award-winning musical will be akin to slogging through an ACLU amicus brief. Freedom of expression always sounds better musicalized.
There is a strong connection between the broad-minded ACLU and famed playwright Terrence McNally, who adapted E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel “Ragtime’’ for the stage. McNally’s work has elicited the highest awards in American theater as well as death threats during the staging of “Corpus Christi,’’ his 1997 play about a gay Jesus-like figure.
Teaming up with edgy artists during the presidential election season is a strong statement by the ACLU, whose advocacy work can sometimes come across as preachy and predictable. The songs from “Ragtime’’ should connect listeners with civil liberties and civil rights issues in ways that can’t be duplicated by letter-writing campaigns and litigation. That became clear when the entire “Ragtime’’ cast offered a hot-blooded rendition of “Till We Reach That Day’’ at an ACLU award ceremony for McNally in Boston last week.
“Ragtime’’ throws light on three families trying to cope with social, economic, and technological upheavals during the early part of 20th century. The characters’ lives intersect with some of the charismatic figures of the era, including Henry Ford, anarchist Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and J.P. Morgan. Theater critic Jonathan Mandell has described the music as “simultaneously dark and hopeful, violent and sweet.’’
Uphams Corner, where the Strand is located, enjoys a similar reputation. That might dissuade some suburbanites from coming to the neighborhood where parking is tight and the T stops unfamiliar. But Christopher Cook, the head of Boston’s Arts, Tourism, and Special Events Department, said special efforts will be made to steer theater-goers to nearby private and municipal lots.
It would be a terrible shame if suburban stage fright gets in the way of a successful run.
Meg Fofonoff, Fiddlehead’s artistic director, said the cast is energized by rehearsing and performing in a neighborhood where residents can relate to the struggles of the characters. But there is no guarantee that urban residents with easy access to the Strand will embrace the production, even with affordable tickets starting at $25.
The Strand has been battling to find a loyal audience since its opening as a vaudeville house in 1918. One way to attract a following might be to offer discounted tickets to unionized employees, including city workers. The theme of “Ragtime’’ could be especially entertaining for members of the Service Employees International Union and other labor groups across the city.
“Ragtime’’ is also a test of the Menino administration's decision to invest millions of dollars in the physical rehabilitation of the Strand. In 2004, City Hall seized control of the theater from a nonprofit organization that focused on smaller, community-oriented events, including church services. The administration saw an opportunity to draw high arts into low-income neighborhoods. But in 2010, an investigative article in the Dorchester Reporter found that bookings had fallen to less than one a week after the city takeover. Arts chief Cook said that bookings rebounded in 2011, when the building was in use for 146 days.
“Ragtime’’ rivals or exceeds the most ambitious productions in the history of the Strand. Fiddlehead is mounting a full production with 42 actors and a 16-piece orchestra in a theater that boasts the seating capacity (1,400) of a typical Broadway theater, but lacks some of the amenities. But Cook and others who sat in on “Ragtime’’ rehearsals are predicting that the show will be a knockout.
If they are right, and the audience responds, “Ragtime’’ could launch both a legitimate arts season and a neighborhood revival.