There are only a few musicals I would classify as a masterpiece: Rent, Caroline or Change, and perhaps even Les Miserables. After processing the PlayMakers’ production of Ragtime, and there is a lot to process, I might guardedly add this one to the list.
Ragtime tells the story of three families at the turn-of-the-century (beginning in 1906). Inspired by E.L. Doctorow’s book, the musical opened on Broadway in 1998 and received four Tony Awards, including Best Book (Terrence McNally) and Best Score (Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens).
Under the imaginative direction of Zi Alikhan, the PlayMakers’ production juxtaposes this turn-of-the-century saga with contemporary design elements that spotlight the show’s timely themes: racism, immigration, and gender equality. Alikhan’s immersive 360-degree staging of Ragtime is an interesting choice but proves to be awkward, obstructive, and distracting at times. It makes pivotal moments easy to miss in a show that is already weighty and complex.
That said, some of the performances in this production are spellbinding, particularly Lauren Kennedy’s, Fergie L. Phillippe’s, and Adam Poole’s.
Kennedy plays Mother, a woman challenged with independence following her husband’s departure for the North Pole. Mother opens the door, and subsequently her heart and mind, to a stranger, a move that immeasurably changes her life. Kennedy’s vocals are as pure and refined as her characterization of Mother. Her artful delivery of Mother’s solos What Kind of Woman and Back to Before showcases her mastery as a performing artist.
Philippe is fresh off the national tour of Hamilton. His intense performance as Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. commands the entire room. His vocals are mesmerizing, and his rendition of Wheels of a Dream, with AnnEliza Canning-Skinner as a determined Sarah, is simply stunning. Canning-Skinner’s performance is much more composed than Philippe’s (appropriately so), but that doesn’t make it any less profound.
PlayMakers’ company members typically deliver consistent performances show after show. Ragtime is no exception. Jeffrey Blair Cornell, Ray Dooley, and Julia Gibson demonstrate once again that they are all highly-skilled performers. Cornell is duly authoritative and gruff as Father. Dooley has some of the funnier lines of the show and has a knack for timing and delivery. And Gibson adeptly plays both Little Girl and political activist Emma Goldman. Casting both these parts as a double role is another telling and interesting choice on the part of Alikhan. But the company member standout in this production is Adam Poole. His well-grounded, charismatic portrayal of the Latvian immigrant Tateh is arguably his strongest performance to date.
Ragtime is not for passive theatergoers. In fact, this PlayMakers’ production might be categorized as an advanced course in musical theater. The story is epic in scope on par with other book-to-stage adaptations like Les Miserables or Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812. And while there are program notes, there is no synopsis. So, it may behoove audiences to familiarize themselves with the story beforehand to fully appreciate the grand scope and intentionality of this experience.