Review: Ragtime at Serenbe Playhouse
Every time I walk into a production at Serenbe Playhouse, I’m aware that I must expect the unexpected. And Ragtime is the unexpected.
It doesn’t matter if I’ve seen the set, know every cast member, or even got to see a rehearsal run of the show. I always find myself anticipating the unexpected, which is frankly impossible to do on its own and only gets harder when you add Brian Clowdus’ mind to the equation. Though I’ve seen almost every show at Serenbe in the past four years, I still retain a feeling of wonder and curiosity every time another show opens.
Ragtime is no different, I pulled up with butterflies in my stomach that didn’t leave until the first chord of the opening number struck. It is sacred to me, as a black actor there are some shows and characters that you must know. Ragtime might be the highest on that list, and Coalhouse Walker Jr. without a doubt is the one character you must know. Though the musical was written in 1996 and the book in 1975, this story is just as relevant today as it was then.
The thing that gets me about this production is that it felt new to me. I was so engaged in a show I know, I’ve done, and have listened to hundreds of times and it felt brand new. All of the pain in the show felt fresh like I didn’t know what was going to happen and that’s storytelling done right.
Ragtime at Serenbe Playhouse is the most haunting a piece of theatre I’ve ever seen.
When you look at shows that have hit Broadway in the past thirty years there are some brilliant shows that slipped through the cracks. Ragtime is the perfect example of a show that slipped the larger public consciousness. The Ahrens and Flaherty 1997 classic should be exalted just as highly as shows like Les Miserables and Sunday in the Park with George. But at the 1997 Tony Awards, it was drowned out by a little-known show by the name of The Lion King.
Despite its beautiful score and story, it’s still one of the most under appreciated musicals of all time. But in this production, Serenbe Playhouse fully realizes and rises to the legacy of Ragtime. This is how I wish everyone could experience Ragtime. The intimate setting really encourages you to connect with the show and these characters in a new way.
I was skeptical about one part of Ragtime particularly before walking in though…
This production is set to the tune of Atlantic City and instates Harry Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit as our guides to Ragtime. It’s a strange concept that seems more fitting of shows like Pippin, Paramour, and even the Greatest Showman but strangely enough, it works here. I would’ve never dreamed of a complete reimagining of Ragtime like this but it works.
The opening number set the tone perfectly for the show. Father (Daniel Burns) opens as a ringmaster of sorts and keeps everything in “order”. As the show progresses and worlds begin to unfold, you slowly start to see order lost. At its core, Ragtime is a story about Fatherhood. And how far people will go to provide a better life for their families. Whether it’s Father’s return from war in a world that had changed and how he attempts to protect his family. Coalhouse, in wanting a better world for his son full of Justice and hope and doing whatever it took to ensure he wasn’t treated as a negro but a man. Or Tateh, a widowed man searching for the American dream, a better life for his child who instead of chasing the dream, creates it.
This staging is also very much reminiscent of shows like Cabaret and Pippin in their act two tension building. (Spoiler alert) Sarah’s death is a turning point of the show. (like the reveal of Ernst’s Nazi status or The Leading Player’s break in act two of Pippin)This is where the Atlantic city/ Big top setting starts to work for the show. Naturally the circus is something bright and joyful but can also become your worst nightmare. Serenbe plays into the duality of the American dream and how often it becomes the American nightmare.
My hat is completely off to this cast because this isn’t an easy show by any means.
Emotionally, it’s a tough one to live with. It’s hard living in a time where racism and police brutality are televised daily. But seeing and living are two different things. Our bodies don’t know the difference between real emotional grief and when we’re giving acting beats. And I will always respect these actors for undergoing the process.
Physically, It’s also a beast! It’s one thing to do Ragtime, but to do it in Georgia during the summer, in period clothing, and for Houdini, doing most of it upside down isn’t easy. That’s not counting the belting and dancing these actors are doing! It’s rare that you see a cast own a show completely and create something new. You could see the work they’d spent on character development and building relationships as characters. It’s truly a production free of imitation. My seat was so close I could touch the stage. I’ve never seen anyone hold and maintain a note as long Ally Duncan did during the show… in a corset… in 80-degree weather. And I must take a moment to say Jacob S. Louchheim is ridiculous! It’s easy to play into the surface of a character or to make basic choices. But he found new and original choices.
Let me tell you about these voices though!
My theatre mother, Lilliangina Quiñones (Emma Goldman) is giving you a good full voice belt every night! And you know that I LIVE for a good belt moment. If we’re talking about voices there’s one person that in the words of the great prophet Missy Elliot.
“Put that thing down, flipped it, then reversed it”
Ms. Nicole Vanessa Ortiz (Sarah), HOW DARE YOU?! Listen this woman’s voice is coated in Vibranium, Pedialyte, and the Blood of Jesus. Because not only is it a consistent and healthy vocal, but it’s a grounded vocal! She plants her feet and sings for Agwe, Asaka, Erzulie, Papa Ge, and any other god in the immediate area! You’ve never heard “Your Daddy’s Son” like this, I can guarantee it.
Marcus Terrell Smith, Courtney Chapelle, and Daniel Burns all shine in this production that runs through June 9th. The cast also includes Niki Baddua as Evelyn Nesbit, Ethan Hall as Harry Houdini, Chase Davidson as Younger Brother, Lilliangina Quinones as Emma Goldman, Jeremy Skidmore as Grandfather, Pilot Bunch as The Little Boy, Elyse Corbett as The Little Girl, Tetrianna Beasley as Sarah’s Friend, Chris Saltalamacchio as Henry Ford, Aaron Schilling as J.P. Morgan, Adam Washington as Booker T. Washington, and Jeremy Gee as Willie Conklin. Rounding out the ensemble, C.J. Babb, Ally Duncan, Destiny Freeman, Rosie Gyselinck , Alexandria Joy, Karley Rene, Matthew Salvatore, and Terrence Smith. Ragtime at Serenbe Playhouse runs through June 9th and you can buy tickets here!