Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Ragtime began as a 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, and it was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film in 1981. Doctorow's goal was always "the big story," about "the national soul, who we are, what we are trying to be, what is our fate, and where we will stand in the moral universe when these things are reckoned." To do this, he tells a sweeping tale of three entwined families at the turn of the 20th century: one white-American; one African-American; and one newly immigrated. While these families live close to each other in New York City, their lives are quite different until they begin to intersect, sometimes tragically, but always painting a picture of what America means.
Novels and films have room for sprawling stories, but musicals can only pack in so much plot. But bookwriter Terrence McNally took on the task, and while he won a Tony Award for his adaption, it must be said that the show can barely contain all the story he left in. Great help comes from the Tony-winning score with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. It is that pair's best work to date and, in this reviewer's opinion, one of the best of the late 20th century. Flaherty and Ahrens worked closely with McNally to create songs that move the story forward, though they do make room for some numbers that simply celebrate Americana, like those dedicated to Henry Ford and baseball. Like the book, the score ranges from upbeat to heart-wrenching, and it makes a great impact.
This production of Ragtime may take a moment to get used to. Typically a thrust stage, the Paul Green Theatre has been significantly reconfigured, and depending on your seating, you may have to look over your shoulder or even behind you to see certain parts of the action as Masha Tsimring's lighting design moves the focus around. The set by Tony-nominated Mark Wendland is both minimal and thought-provoking, and Alex Maness's video and projection design does much of the work to identify places and times, which change quite frequently. All of this amounts to an audacious move for a director in their PlayMakers debut, but Zi Alikhan's vision is strong.
Lux Haac's costumes are not of the time period, giving us another clue that we are not to think of these ideas and themes as historical, putting the large cast in the position of finding their characters in other ways. Fortunately, this ensemble includes the best of the best from the Triangle and beyond. PlayMakers regular Jeffrey Blair Cornell is at home in the shoes of Father. Sarah Elizabeth Keyes has fun flirting it up as Evelyn Nesbit, a great opportunity to showcase her beautiful voice. Adam Poole's Tateh is a true highlight of the production and one of his best performances as a company member to date. PlayMakers favorites Ray Dooley and Julia Gibson play dual roles, sometimes as Henry Ford and Emma Goldman, and sometimes, interestingly, as little children, which might be the most challenging casting choice here.
Broadway alum and Theatre Raleigh's Producing Artistic Director Lauren Kennedy makes her PlayMakers debut as Mother in a riveting portrayal of a role that includes the eleven o'clock number "Back to Before," which she knocks out of the park. Making their PlayMakers debuts are Fergie L. Philippe as Coalhouse Walker Jr. and AnnEliza Canning-Skinner as Sarah, and these two have amazing chemistry. Mr. Phillippe's Coalhouse is electrifying, and while Ms. Canning-Skinner starts quietly, the raw emotion she reveals will take your breath away. Her rendition of the song "Your Daddy's Son" is worth the price admission alone.
Zi Alikhan seems right at home in the style of theatre that PlayMakers is becoming known for under Vivienne Benesch's artistic direction: works and productions that challenge our ideas about the human experience and embrace what truly makes us human. Mr. Alikhan's production leans into the truth that the themes of American identity and the illusions of the American Dream have not changed much in the last hundred years. As dramaturg Gregory Kable observed in his program note, Ragtime remains the same: "dynamic, aspirational, symphonic, anthemic. In a word, American."
Ragtime plays through December 15, 2019, at PlayMakers Repertory Company, the Paul Green Theatre at the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill NC. For tickets and information, visit www.playmakersrep.org or call 919-962-7529.
Based on the Novel by: E.L. Doctorow
Cast: (In alphabetical order)