Ragtime stars AnnEliza Canning-Skinner as Sarah and Fergie L. Phillipe as Coalhouse (photo by HuthPhoto)
Ragtime, based on the E.L. Doctorow novel and written by Terrence McNally, is a popular show. However, even viewers familiar with this classic have never seen it quite the way it's brought to life on the PlayMakers' stage as reimagined by inventive director Zi Alikhan.
Featuring a unique 360° viewing experience courtesy of scenic designer Mark Wendland, the production opens with its title song, effectively setting the time (1906) and place (New York). The show's white characters- an upper-class family- sit center stage, while the Black and immigrant characters, who will soon become a part of this family's life in ways they can't imagine, are tucked away in the audience, blending in with the other viewers, a choice that makes a bold statement right from the beginning about 1906 America and the lingering effects of a divided past that can't (and shouldn't) be forgotten.
As this complex, interwoven story begins its winding journey, viewers are both immersed in the show and fully mesmerized, thanks in large part to the unique staging. There are characters above, below, to the right, and to the left. There are so many places to look, so many things to see at all times, and yet it all comes together beautifully and without distraction, an impressive and fully-accomplished feat that makes this show and its important story all the more powerful and real.
The aforementioned white family serves as the catalyst for much of the action that plays out onstage. Mainly, that catalyst is Mother, beautifully portrayed by Lauren Kennedy. Bright-eyed yet surprisingly strong, Kennedy's characterization of Mother displays an endearing openness that makes the character's choices, made once her husband, Father (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) leaves on an expedition/adventure, fully believable. The choice in question is to take in both an African-American woman, Sarah (AnnEliza Canning-Skinner) and her illegitimate child. This choice is one that ultimately spurs the action of the rest of the play and that brings both beautiful and devastating changes to this family's life and to society itself.
Many of these changes happen, in large part, due to Coalhouse Walker Jr (Fergie L. Philippe), Sarah's former love interest. He once had a wandering eye but has reformed his ways and made up his mind to be a better man, a better person all-around, and begins coming to the family home, desperate to see his Sarah and to make his family a fully-realized one. This early Coalhouse is portrayed by Philippe as wonderfully likeable, good-hearted, and with the best of intentions and an unflappable confidence, which effectively serve to make his later actions all the more heartbreaking but also understandable. But, in the first act, this bright young version of Coalhouse plays nicely off of the strong, stubborn Sarah, richly characterized by Canning-Skinner, who gives a hauntingly gorgeous performance of "Your Daddy's Son."
While all of these characters and their stories may seem a lot to keep up with, the careful direction brings everything together, even when more characters are introduced. Two of the most notable are struggling immigrant Tateh, endearingly portrayed by Adam Poole, and his young, frightened daughter, played by Julia Gibson, who delicately yet perfectly juggles other roles as well, as many of the actors do. Gibson is not the only adult to tackle a child role either. Ray Dooley plays the white family's Little Boy with complete wonderment and impressive believably.
As for Tateh, the show follows his slow rise to success and his realization of the "American Dream," adding a layer of hope to this often-somber story, particularly with Poole's lively, fun delivery of "Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc."
Tateh's story, though, which will eventually collide with the others in a big way, takes a backseat to the drama that plays out with Sarah and Coalhouse. Coalhouse goes through many changes within this dramatic piece, and Philippe handles each one with incredible deftness. He seethes with real, almost tangible anger, believably expresses intense pain, and performs every song to soul-touching perfection, making him a perfect and impactful Coalhouse, one that the audience will connect with and empathize with every step of the way. In a cast that displays incredible talent at every turn, he stands out for his raw and incredible ability to convey real emotion in a way that grabs the viewer and refuses to let go.
This show is one that will give viewers much to think about, throughout and long after the production has ended. It is a story about the quest for home, about what it means to be an American, and about the issues of class, race, and inequality that still plague our nation today. It offers hope while expressing concern, making it complex and provocative, especially in this production, which draws out everything beautiful and powerful in the script and makes it even more so. It is Ragtime like it's never been done before, a Ragtime that viewers will experience in a new and visceral way that will leave a lasting imprint on their minds and hearts.
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