5/12/2019      RAGTIME: THE MUSICAL                       Serenbe Playhouse

*****  ( A+ )  


One of the joys of theatre-going is seeing a production of an oft-produced, oft-attended favorite that breaks new ground, finds new "moments," and sets off new "fireworks."  I have seen Ragtime many times in many different conceptualizations, from the original many-set Broadway extravaganza, to Atlanta Lyric Theatre's scaled-down unit set version, to even a High School attempt that included some interesting staging ideas that surprised and enriched its modest budget and resources.


And now comes Serenbe Theatre's "Big Top" concept.  As usual with a Brian Clowdus-directed production, there is an overwhelming tally of fresh ideas and conceptual flourishes, fleshed out by the best cast to ever fill these characters' shoes (and I include the impressive Broadway Original Cast in that assessment).


Ragtime syncopated its way into existence as a 1975 tapestry-novel by E.L. Doctorow that combined historical and fictional characters into a portrait of America from 1900 to 1917.  Its central upper-class-white family (unnamed) proves to be a magnet for several storylines that show us glimpses of the imminent softening of barriers between classes, races, and genders that may be the defining characteristic of 20th-century America.   This "softening" starts by "the coming of the Negro" to New Rochelle NY in the person of 

Sarah, a depressed "woman of color" who has tried to bury her new-born infant.  She is soon followed by "Coalhouse" Walker, a professional musician and the child's father.  When an act of racism clashes with Coalhouse's towering pride, tragedy and terrorism follow.  In the meantime, an immigrant single father of a young girl struggles with crushing poverty, but never falls into despair and soon is swept up by his own American dream.  By the end of the book, World War I "changes their lives forever," or it would if the characters hadn't already changed their own lives from within.


The story's next incarnation was a 1981 movie, that featured Mary Steenburgen, Mandy Patinkin, Elizabeth McGovern, Brad Dourif, Debbie Allen, Howard Rollins Jr., and, in his final role, James Cagney.  It was well-received, winning eight Academy Award nominations, and, at the time, was a personal favorite of mine.


The musical (book by Terence McNally, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty) opened in Toronto in 1996, moved to Los Angeles, then finally landed on Broadway in 1998.  It was a large and lavish spectacle of a show, one that was sometimes criticized for letting its razzle-dazzle overwhelm its story.  It was a costly show to "run," and only lasted two years.  A subsequent revival closed early, again because of its high production costs.


My own opinion was that the razzle-dazzle did not distract, that the music and story were powerful in their own right, and that the fireworks and such were merely "icing on the cake," even symbolically relevant icing considering the source of "Father's" fortune ("Fireworks, bunting and other accoutrements of patriotism").  I have been a rabid fan ever since I heard he Toronto Cast Cassette.


The first thing you'll notice when you walk into Serenbe's "Big Top" is that's it is less about the specific Serenbe space -- the large tent could have been pitched anywhere on the grounds and the producers get my sincere thanks for putting it right along the main street with an easy-in easy-out parking plan -- and more about the idea itself.  We are in an old-fashioned Atlantic City Boardwalk Big Top Side Show, complete with over-sized posters, and over-eager performers.  I imagine this is the sort of venue in which Harry Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit spent their declining years.  And, to drive home that point, Mr. Clowdus has put Houdini and Nesbit in almost every scene, as observers and casual participants.  (Then again, most of the cast remain in view even when their characters are elsewhere.)  Having the cast onstage gives some moments much more emotional "heft" than usual -- especially when Mother sings "I was your wife / It never occurred to want more" directly to the actor playing Father, only to have him turn his back and walk into the darkness).  It also helps make the show's exquisite harmonies totally surround us when there are voices in the playing area AND behind us "off stage".


The next thing you'll notice is that there is no set, per se, merely a long central platform (reminiscent of Serenbe's 2017 Cabaret Biergarten set up) with an orchestra at the high end and darkness at the low.  There are the requisite sightline-unfriendly tent poles -- which, thanks to an always-mobile blocking plan, keeps sight line obstructions rapid and rare, and the requisite trapdoors and swings and pulleys and crates and frusta and boxes.  Evelyn Nesbit's swing is used more acrobatically than usual (and more burlesque-ly with bits of her costume being yanked off), and is a nice playing area for almost every other character (I especially liked its use during "Sarah Brown-Eyes.")


Because this is a Boardwalk Entertainment, all the characters, including the upper class central family, are dressed in circus-esque designs and motifs. (Costume Designer Clare Parker gets kudos for keeping these motifs without losing the requisite period and class "tells."  And because this is Boardwalk Entertainment, the cast is always interacting with us, living in the reality of the Big Top rather than the reality of New Rochelle.` Because this is Boardwalk Entertainment, the opening number, which uses the same ensemble in all three choruses, introduces the "next character" with a ringmaster's stomp and hand gesture, as if to say, "Ladies and Gentlemen, for your entertainment, on the far frustum, THE AMAZING MOTHER!!!"


Okay, I may be misleading you.  The FIRST thing you'll really notice, at least after the show has begun, is how crazy good this cast is.  From the beautifully-blended voices of the opening ensemble to each individual characterization, this cast NAILS it.  When the exquisitely talented Nicole Vanessa Ortiz (as Sarah) attacks "His Father's Hands" with an emotional range that matches her inhuman singing range, she'll leave you breathless.  When the impressive Courtney Chapelle holds that high note in "Back to Before" until AFTER the band has run out of breath, so have you.  When the powerhouse Marcus Terrell Smith (as "Coalhouse" begs us to "Make Them Hear You," we want to rise up and shout his story from the rooftops.  And when Lilliangina Quiñones (as Emma Goldman) and Chase Davidson (as Younger Brother) relate what happened "The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square,"  we too are compelled to stand upon our chairs, "shouting what I do not know."  Everyone in the cast, from Jacob Louchheim (Tateh) to Daniel Burns (Father), from Pilot Bunch (Little Boy) to Elyse Corbett (as a Little Girl half the age as she is usually cast), from Niki Badua (as Evelyn Nesbit) to Ethan Hall (as Harry Houdini), creates an indelible person, and performs their oh-so-familiar songs in a way that makes them seem brand new.  They are supported by 14 (or so) talented actors and singers who play countless programmed (and un-programmed) roles.  To put it pretentiously British, they left me gob-smacked.


The entire creative team, Mr. Clowdus, Music Director Chris Brent Davis, Choreographer Bubba Carr, Action Director Jake Gunn, Scenic Designer Ryan Howell (and the "no set" comment above should in no way minimize his contribution), Lighting Designer, Maranda Debusk, Sound Designer Ron Brooksher, and especially Costumer Clare Parker, are all operating in top form, and each of their skill sets is an integral thread in this hugely successful tapestry.  I can even forgive props designer Christopher Dills the 50-star flag because, well a 46-star flag is cost prohibitive, and, really, unless you take the time to count them -- and NO ONE would want to do that during that moment -- the 46-star flag looks very similar to the 50-star flag.  (Historical trivia - the familiar 8x6 48-star flag didn't come into use until 1912).  Well done, all!


Ragtime has become one of my favorite musicals, due to its rapturous score, its sweeping story, and its elegant characters (their namelessness could even be considered a by-product of seeing them from Houdini and Nesbit's Point of View -- and in their world).   Serenbe's production is Ragtime at its best, and it will not be soon forgotten, even as the piano roll of the 20-teens grinds to its inevitable conclusion.

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #SerenbeTheatreRagtime)

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