BWW Review: RAGTIME, PlayMakers Repertory Company
RAGTIME is a musical that is as relevant now as it was in 1998 when it premiered and the production currently on at PlayMakers Repertory Company makes that abundantly clear. While the show might be set in the state of New York in 1906, it makes statements about immigration, race relations, corrupt justice, and women's rights that continue to ring true today. Director Zi Alikhan stages the show as you've never seen before, cutting away the period clothing and elaborate setting to focus on its brilliant music and lyrics and the poignant themes it explores. The new 360 degree theatre layout puts the audience firmly into the action, letting them get even closer to the characters than in a normal show.
Ragtime is a story of America at the turn of the century which focuses on three segments of society: the well-to-do white families of New Rochelle, the black people of Harlem, and the immigrants arriving through Ellis Island. The book, by Terrrence McNally, weaves together many different characters ranging from the fictional, like Sarah and Younger Brother, to the historical, like Harry Houdini and Emma Goldman.
In New Rochelle, Mother is faced with making her own decisions for the first time in many years when Father leaves for an expedition to the North Pole and later has to reconcile her new independent self with her married life when he returns. Coalhouse Walker Jr., a musician from Harlem, sets out to court the mother of his baby, Sarah, who has been taken in by Mother and her family, but is soon met with racial prejudices and obstructed justice. Tateh is a poor Jewish immigrant from Latvia who has brought his little girl to America to seek a better life for them, but is disappointed by what he finds.
The music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens is as varied as you would hope for in a story with such diverse perspectives. It ranges from beautiful ballads like "Your Daddy's Son" and "Back to Before" to bouncy vaudeville numbers like "Crime of the Century." There are clear influences of Eastern European music in bits related to the immigrants. The whole show is characterized by the sound of the ragtime music that Coalhouse Walker Jr. plays. It's an impressive score that has songs that are sure to bring a tear to your eye and ones that will get stuck in your head for days. One of my few complaints about this production is that they cut most of one of my favorite songs in the show, "He Wanted to Say," but reducing it does keep the plot moving faster.
Alikhan has created an exciting new version of this musical that emphasizes its continuing relevance. The actors are all in modern dress and bits of technology are mixed throughout: there is a gramophone present onstage, but a television is also wheeled through showing video of Houdini. It is particularly impressive how costume designer Lux Haac used her clothing to symbolize mother's journey of developing her independence and her own voice. Once Father departs, she changes from an elegant dress into a pretty and refined shirt and jeans.
The Paul Green Theatre has been remade to allow for seating on all four sides with the action of the show mostly happening in the middle. The actors also make ample use of the aisles and other areas in the theatre. The set is very minimal with props supplementing it to help the audience keep track of characters and locations. Lighting designer Masha Tsimring and sound designer Eric Alexander Collins have done a great job of ensuring that the audience never suffers from having difficulty seeing or hearing the actors no matter where they are in the theatre. It's a bold move by scenic designer Mark Wendland, but it definitely pays off and keeps the audience thoroughly engaged in the story.
Ragtime features a diverse and large ensemble with several standout performances. David Adamson is wonderfully gruff as Grandfather, while David Fine's fresh-faced passion is perfect for Younger Brother. Sebastiani Romagnolo was flamboyantly fantastic as Harry Houdini, with a lingering sadness underneath the glamour apparent. AnnEliza Canning-Skinner portrays each of Sarah's emotions perfectly from her despondency in the beginning of the show to her later bright vibrancy, imbuing the character with strength.
Sarah Elizabeth Keyes plays Evelyn Nesbit, though she uses a puppet doll in the first act. It's an interesting choice, but makes perfect sense as a way to portray the famous vaudeville star who became infamous when her husband killed her lover. In her big number recounting the trial, "Crime of the Century," Keyes becomes distraught as the men of the ensemble hand the puppet off from one to another and as the verdict is declared. It's a fascinating reflection of how Nesbit was manipulated and mistreated by the men in her life.
Lauren Kennedy proves her acting skills once again, making her PlayMakers debut, in the role of Mother. She is the epitome of gentle elegance in the role; a beacon of warmth and refinement for the rest of the characters. Adam Poole shines as Tateh with his beautiful soaring voice and brings high energy to every scene whether his character is exuberant about arriving in America or angry at their treatment in their new country.
Fergie L. Philippe plays Coalhouse Walker, Jr. with an unshakable optimism and marked friendliness at the beginning of the show that makes his later scenes, filled with brooding and anger, even more impressive. Fresh off of his time on the HAMILTON tour, Philippe's voice is incredibly well-suited to the role and seems to fill the entire theatre. I actually was in the same year as Philippe at Elon University and saw him play Booker T. Washington in Elon's production of Ragtime our freshman year, so it was great to see him return to the show in a leading role in a professional production.
It's hard to imagine a time since it premiered in 1998 when Ragtime wouldn't feel timely, but it does feel very well-suited to this moment as immigration and racial discrimination are hot topics. It is almost terrifying how relevant this story that is set in 1906 still is today. It touches on so many topics that describe the American experience from the plight of the immigrant to the struggle of the factory worker to the injustice of the legal system. This production would be laudable for its performances and innovative, immersive design alone but paired with its subject matter, it's something that every person would benefit from seeing.
PlayMakers Repertory Company's Ragtime runs to December 15 in Chapel Hill. You can also experience PlayMakers' virtual reality exhibit, NC360: VR Stories, in the lobby before the show. Find out more information and buy tickets here.
Photo Credit: HuthPhoto