Serenbe Playhouse is currently presenting a vibrant, scintillating “Ragtime,” the musical play with a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and directed by Brian Clowdus. It is based on the 1975 E. L. Doctorow novel, a work of historical fiction set mainly in the New York City area from 1900 to 1912, with brief scenes pointing toward the beginning of World War I. The show runs through June 9.
The musical “Ragtime” opened on Broadway in January of 1998 and was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and featured first rate performers like Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marin Mazzie, and Audra McDonald. Although it won four Tonys and had a healthy two-year run, “The Lion King” opened about this time, became a phenomenon, and garnered the lion’s share (couldn’t resist) of attention.
But I have friends who saw the original Broadway “Ragtime,” and they speak of it in worshipful tones.
I would say that if the Broadway version had had Serenbe’s legendary inventiveness and total audience immersion, it might still be running, and I will tell you why.
Director Brian Clowdus and a tremendous cast have managed a coup, in my view, by staging the piece in 2019. It has never been more relevant. On one hand, “Ragtime” is a lilting slice of Americana: red, white, and blue seem almost everywhere. Conversely, the play is a powerful drama, with racism rearing its ugly head at the same time that heroism, romance, and all human aspiration seem yearning to burst through the tent.
Tent? That’s right, Serenbe, which usually performs outdoors, is performing “Ragtime” under a very large, elaborately constructed tent. I’ve thought about this since seeing the show: There is an inimitable theatricality about a tent. I’m old enough to have seen the Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey circus (“The Greatest Show on Earth”) in a tent as a child. It was overwhelming. Long before the circus folded its tents (literally), they switched to indoor arenas. Not the same.
Obviously, you need more than a tent to tell “Ragtime’s” rich, deeply felt story. Clowdus and company know this. This is a story of three diverse families in pursuit of the American dream in the volatile melting pot of turn-of-the-century New York. Even though there is an Atlantic City boardwalk motif here, this is a New York City story.
The show confronts the contradictions inherent in America: wealth and poverty, freedom and prejudice, hope and despair. There is a wealthy white couple, a Jewish immigrant father and his motherless daughter, and an African-American ragtime musician. Their worlds intertwine.
The wealthy family is Mother (Courtney Chappelle), Father (Daniel Burns), Little Boy (Pilot Bunch), and Younger Brother (Chase Davidson).
In Harlem, a beautiful young woman named Sarah (Nicole Vanessa Ortiz) explores a new kind of music pioneered by her lover, jazz pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Marcus Terrell Smith).
There are immigrants from everywhere seeking better lives in the tenements of the Lower East Side, including Tateh (Jacob S. Louchheim), a Jewish artist from Latvia and his young daughter, the Little Girl (Elyse Corbett). Together all of these characters discover the surprising interconnections of the human heart.
Then we have historical figures, all extremely well played: Harry Houdini (Ethan Hall), Evelyn Nesbit (Niki Badua)–chorus girl, artists’ model and actress (with whom Younger Brother is smitten); Booker T. Washington (Adam Washington), a fiery Emma Goldman (Lilliangina Quinones), and J. P. Morgan (Aaron Schilling). Jeremy Gee plays Willie Conklin, a white racist, who with his pals destroy Coalhouse’s car. Perhaps I should warn you that there is use of the n-word in some ugly, mercifully brief powerful scenes.
Mother takes in Sarah’s illegitimate child, much to Father’s consternation. Younger Brother tells him, “You’re a complacent man on the wrong side of history,” and he isn’t referring to just the child.
To borrow a phrase from “Angels in America,” one recurring supertruth in “Ragtime” is the obvious fact that “history is about to crack wide open.” I’m not going into more of the plot of this two hour, 45 minute production, but that is a theme that is unfolding constantly in the show.
Every actor I’ve mentioned in this lush, huge production is outstanding, particularly Marcus Terrell Smith, Courtney Chappelle, and Jacob S. Louchheim. Also fine is everyone in the ensemble: CJ Babb, Alexandra Duncan, Destiny Freeman, Rosie Gyselinck, Alexandria Joy, Karley René, Matthew Salvatore, and Terrence J. Smith. The ensemble singing is suburb and Tetrianna Beasley is excellent as Sarah’s friend.
Mr. Clowdus is most ably aided by Chris Brent Davis, music director; Bubba Carr, choreographer; action director, Jake Guinn; scenic design, Ryan Howell; costume design, Clare Parker, lighting design, Maranda Debusk, and sound design, Rob Brooksher.
I haven’t mentioned the songs, some anthemic and glorious; you’ll have to discover them.
To me, the theatricality of the piece is enhanced by the Atlantic City runway concept; also the hustle and bustle of New York streets. “Ragtime” has an epic quality to it; at the same time, it throbs with drama. I hear shows are selling out; I would not miss this one.
For tickets and information, visit serenbeplayhouse.com.