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Nashville Rep Comes Home to TPAC's Polk Theatre for Season-Opening RAGTIME

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Megan Murphy Chambers, Justin Boyd, Galen Fott and Garris Wimmer Lead 35-Member Cast

Nashville Rep Comes Home to TPAC's Polk Theatre for Season-Opening RAGTIME

For Nashville Repertory Theatre's return to the realm of live performance after a protracted "intermission" caused by a virtual lockdown of theaters across the globe during the past 18 months, the venerable company returns to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's James K. Polk Theatre (its home for decades prior to its move to the venue's Johnson Theatre) for one of its largest-ever musical productions.

Opening Thursday night, November 11 and continuing for five performances through Sunday, November 14, Ragtime - the musical by Stephen Flaherty (music), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Terrance McNally (book) which, in turn, is based upon E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel of the same name - promises to be a grand undertaking, which hopefully will blow away the cobwebs and the dust that's collected in the past year-and-a-half during which the theater was dark and the company strived to remain relevant and productive amidst all the challenges that ensued.

For a quartet of Nashville's most popular (we daresay "beloved") actors who take on four of Ragtime's most iconic roles, the return to the theater has been sometimes daunting and oftentimes exhausting, yet the experience has been "incredible" (the one term each used in describing the exhilarating experience of bringing Ragtime to life in 2021) for the four stars.

Megan Murphy Chambers, Galen Fott, Garris Wimmer and Justin Boyd have found themselves reinvigorated by a return to the routine of musical theater: table reads, followed by musical rehearsals and blocking, run-throughs and sitzprobes, costume fittings, photo calls and interviews with theater writers. Now, however, there are the realities of producing a big musical in the wake of a pandemic: wearing masks during rehearsal (Wimmer quips "you lose half the face when you're acting in a mask!"), being tested for possible infection at least three times a week and bringing out all that can be found in an actor's requisite bag of tricks to create an aura of onstage magic in preparation for opening night.

After 18 months, each of the seasoned performers has stepped outside her - or his - usual theatrical "box" to portray the characters who loom large in contemporary musical theater and performing a lushly gorgeous score that is among the most glorious to be found in the annals of theater.

Nashville Rep Comes Home to TPAC's Polk Theatre for Season-Opening RAGTIME
Megan Murphy Chambers

"It's just been absolutely incredible," says Megan Murphy Chambers, who will play the role of "Mother" (the role created by Marin Mazzie in the 1996 world premiere). "The energy in the rehearsal room is amazing. I feel such a renewed sense of gratitude and excitement to be a part of such an enormous show."

Justin Boyd, who plays Coalhouse Walker Jr., agrees: "It feel incredible," he said. "After putting everything off for the past year and not being fulfilled by having the opportunity to perform - when the entire cast was together for the first time to sing the score, it just sounded incredible. I knew I was back where I needed to be."

"Incredible!" is how Galen Fott, who plays "Father," described the sensation of being in the rehearsal hall with the rest of the cast and crew. "It is the best thing ever! Seriously. It's so wonderful to have that sense of community - to be in a room with 34 other people is such a thrill and there is nothing else quite like it."

"This experience has been incredible," is how Garris Wimmer, who plays Tateh, describes it. "I love this cast. The voices all across the board are amazing and everyone has come into this project with such a great attitude and they're all so talented."

In fact, Wimmer suggests, the shared experience of the past 18 months and the virtual experience of theater during that time has brought the various cast members - director Micah Shane Brewer has assembled a cast of some 35 people (described by Murphy Chambers as "interesting, diverse and talented") to breathe life into McNally's sprawling cavalcade of events - to the project with the same feeling of determination and a palpable sense of unity that has made the rehearsal process somehow seem more special than it would have been before the Covid-19 shutdown.

"Coming back to a project like this after nothing at all is very special," Murphy Chambers reveals. "This cast - which is a blend of people I've known and loved for so long and with whom I've worked, along with so many new faces - has just been amazing."

The show's scope, which Murphy Chambers calls "massive," tells a uniquely American story of three groups of people at the beginning of the 20th century, who find themselves and their stories intertwined as the "American century" gets under way, all set to the syncopated rhythm of a new musical idiom called "ragtime."

Nashville Rep Comes Home to TPAC's Polk Theatre for Season-Opening RAGTIME
Justin Boyd and Shelby Smith

Boyd's character of Coalhouse Walker Jr. is a Harlem musician who hopes for a better future for the African-Americans in the story, while Murphy Chambers and Fott's affluent white family expect the coming years to bode well for themselves and others of their ilk, and the immigrants disembarking from ships at Ellis Island - such as Wimmer's Latvian-born Tateh - have come to America in search of a better life. The way their various stories intersect and connect the members of the three groups propel the musical forward, with real personalities and public figures of the times interspersed among the fictional characters to create a compelling and intriguing work of immense art.

"You can't deny the musical genius of the score," Murphy Chambers says. "The music is gorgeous, the lyrics are amazing and there are musical motifs that span the globe - the score really in a melting pot of Americana. It really is one of the most listenable shows in the world."

Wimmer says "the music is thrilling to work on, that's for sure. I had seen the show in New York when it first opened, but wasn't that familiar with the role of Tateh until they called me back for that role - he sings a lot - and I found that his music fits so well with my voice."

"The music is just glorious - the music is lovely and sweeping and Flaherty can write a rag! I think Lynn Ahrens is one of the greatest musical lyricists ever," adds Fott. "Her writing is so concise and artful in how she brings things out in the characters."

The key to the musical's success - and the secret to its popularity with audiences - is because "everyone can find at least one character they can connect to," Boyd suggests. "Some of these characters do questionable things, only to have to readjust when they see what happens when they do that. Every character has their own story they are telling and as they play out, it truly is fascinating."

Nashville Rep Comes Home to TPAC's Polk Theatre for Season-Opening RAGTIME
Galen Fott

"Ragtime is such a gripping story," says Fott. "I read the Doctorow book twice to make sure I had a good base of information. But it takes a great playwright like Terrance McNally to adapt the material and the team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens to provide the music and lyrics - they are the reason the show is as strong as it is."

There are moments in Ragtime, of course, that some audience members may find particularly challenging - the pervasive racism of the era provides a dramatic undercurrent throughout - and Fott says the creative team behind Nashville Rep's mounting have been particularly sensitive in regard to the needs of their multi-racial cast throughout the process.

"There is a lot of bigotry and hatred that manifests itself in many ways on different levels in this show," Fott explains. "It's tough to hear racial slurs being repeated among such an integrated cast that the show demands. Nashville Rep has brought in a lot of professionals to help us adjust to the intensity of some of the dialogue."

Nashville Rep Comes Home to TPAC's Polk Theatre for Season-Opening RAGTIME
Garris Wimmer

Murphy Chambers concurs: "I think it's an exciting show to revisit right now, considering the state of life in America these days."

"Hopefully," she muses, "all of us are living with a somewhat broader understanding of what the American experience is and we are able to recognized how little progress seems to have been made since the early 1900s. We have to somehow make the 'American Dream' so much more than just a catchphrase. Ragtime is meant to be a period piece, but sadly it is so relevant in ways that are unpleasant. I hope people come to the show and not only experience the musical theater majesty of the production, but to walk away thinking about what it means to really be an American."

"What's really kind of crazy about this show is how relevant the story is today - and this is a musical written in the 1990s, from a book written in the 1970s about events at the turn of the 20th century - it's very complicated, but we have the benefit of looking back at that time from where we are now in history," Wimmer contends.

For further details, including ticket information, go to www.nashvillerep.org.

photos by Jonathan Snorten

Nashville Rep Comes Home to TPAC's Polk Theatre for Season-Opening RAGTIME
Millie Sims and Garris Wimmer

About the production

"Ragtime is a big American musical which both celebrates the good in our country and challenges us to do better when we don't live up to our ideals," said Drew Ogle, executive director of Nashville Rep. "After a year of shut down due to the pandemic, a period which exposed many of the divides in our country, it feels both appropriate to celebrate and to ask how we can do better. The themes in Ragtime could have been pulled from today's headlines: systemic racism, our treatment of immigrants, gender equality, and police brutality. We have to keep talking about these things until we get them right."

Based on the 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime uses song to weave together stories of early twentieth-century New York from three different perspectives: a Harlem musician, upper-class suburbanites, and a determined Jewish immigrant. Historical figures including Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Evelyn Nesbit make cameo appearances. Terrence McNally won a Tony Award for "Best Book of a Musical." Ragtime composer Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens won Tonys for "Best Original Score." Nashville Rep's production features 35 actors and 15 musicians, and is directed by Micah-Shane Brewer, making his Rep directorial debut.

Nashville Rep Comes Home to TPAC's Polk Theatre for Season-Opening RAGTIME
Marin Rorex, Megan Murphy Chambers, Justin Boyd,
Shelby Smith, Garris Wimmer and Millie Sims

"We are so excited to be back on the stage," said Brewer. "We wanted to return with a bang. It's our largest cast in over 15 years, and our return to TPAC's Polk theatre after a 13-year absence. It's one of our most diverse casts and creative teams ever, with 22 actors making their Rep debut. Ragtime is one of the largest shows the Nashville Rep has ever produced and was the perfect choice as our season opener."

The cast is led by Megan Murphy Chambers as Mother, Garris Wimmer as Tateh, Galen Fott as Father, and making their Rep debuts Justin Marriel Boyd as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Shelby Denise Smith as Sarah. Joining them is Steven McCoy as Younger Brother, Marin Rorex as Little Boy, Millie Sims as Little Girl, Nancy Allen as Emma Goldman, Galen Crawley as Evelyn Nesbit, Wood Van Meter as Harry Houdini, Bakari King as Booker T. Washington, Curt Denham as Grandfather, Geoffrey Davin as J.P. Morgan, Matthew Carlton as Henry Ford, Kortney Ballenger as Sarah's Friend, Dustin Davis as Willie Conklin, and Kambri King as Young Coalhouse. Featuring Matthew Benenson Cruz, Aaron T. Castle, Nate Gilanyi, Ray Gleaves, Carli Hardon, LaDarra Jackal, Hatty Ryan King, Angela Madaline-Johnson, Gerold Oliver, Mariah Parris, Alex Pineiro, Brityn Ramsey, Maya Antoinette Riley, Haille Wallace, Sheldon Thomas, Shawn Whitsell, and Sarah Katherine Zanotti in the ensemble.

Music director and conductor Dave Ragland and choreographer Tosha Pendergrast join Brewer in their Rep debuts. The design team includes sets by Gary C. Hoff, costumes by Lori Gann-Smith, lighting by Darren Levin, sound by Nivedhan Singh, props by Abigail Nichol and projections by Cody Stockstill. New to the team are fight choreographer Diego Gomez, dramaturg Phyllis D. Adams, and mental health provider Crystal Owens of Red Cedar Therapy.


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