STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON/For Digital First Media
Susan Kuhl, of Maple Glen, is an usher at Bristol Riverside Theatre (BRT). She and her husband seat patrons and then watch productions from the back of the house. For the upcoming production of “Ragtime,” which starts previews March 17, someone else will have to seat the patrons, though. She’ll be too busy waiting to go on – Kuhl has been cast as part of the Immigrant Ensemble.
“Ragtime,” a Tony Award-winning musical, tells a tale of life in early 20th century America. The story revolves around a white, upper-middle class family, an African American couple, and a Jewish immigrant family escaping to America, as they all “confront the timeless contradictions of wealth, poverty, freedom, prejudice, hope, and despair in pursuit of the American Dream,” producers said. Though it’s fiction, it includes real characters from that time: Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, among others.
The show explores how people from various backgrounds had to “mix together and learn to get along,” Kuhl said. “Things haven’t changed too much from then ‘til now. It’s a very poignant show for the times we’re having today.”
The show provides a night of entertainment, but also a look at how things were then and how they are now.
“I think about the racial tensions that we still have,” she said, and people from various cultural backgrounds not being able to get along, with some creating obstacles for others. “It’s the struggle of the American dream. I still think there’s an American dream. Hopefully, there still is.”
Her favorite part of “Ragtime” is the Prologue.
“It tells how the show will evolve,” she said. “The music builds and builds. It just blows everybody away.”
Kuhl has been singing and performing for more than 40 years, especially in community theater productions in the Philadelphia region (“Sweeney Todd,” “The Music Man,” “Showboat”). This is only her second professional production – the first was also at BRT, when she was cast in “Inherit the Wind” about two years ago, she said.
The audition process for “Ragtime” was nerve-wracking – she endured the original audition and two call backs. She was relieved when the long process ended, but was more excited than anything. Rehearsals began in late February and she’s enjoying it. She’s looking forward to opening night.
“I get nervous, but you need those butterflies to be able to show your excitement. You can’t go in being calm about it,” she said. “Once you’re singing the songs and can feel the audience reaction, it spurs you on.”
After working for the telephone company for decades, she retired about 10 years ago and is thrilled to focus on things she enjoys, like theater, and to be in a professional production. Who knows, she said, maybe this could be a second career?
“It’s exciting for me at my age to finally be able to do something like this,” she said.
IF YOU GO
When: Previews March 17-18; opening night March 19; runs Tue.-Sun. through April 12.
Where: Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA 19007
Tickets: $42-50, with discounts for students, groups and military personnel.
Info.: Call 215-785-0100 or visit www.brtstage.org