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a Musical
by Terrence McNally (book), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), Stephen Flaherty (music)

COMPANY : Serenbe Playhouse [WEBSITE]
VENUE : The Inn Meadow at Serenbe [WEBSITE]
ID# 5498

SHOWING : May 08, 2019 - June 09, 2019



The Tony Award-winning musical based on E.L. Doctorow’s acclaimed novel of the same name, it is a picture of this nation’s hopes and pains as we entered the twentieth century. Telling the diverse stories of African Americans, immigrants, and the elite upper-class, with a mix of real-life historical figures, it paints a canvas of a country on the verge of a new era. In a concept never seen before, this version will be reimagined in the style of Vaudeville under a giant Atlantic City tent!

Director Brian Clowdus
Father Daniel Burns
Younger Brother Chase Davidson
Emma Goldman Lilliangina Quinones
Henry Ford Chris Saltalamacchio
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by playgoer
Monday, May 20, 2019
Serenbe’s "Ragtime" is hard on the eyes. It’s not that Clare Parker’s costumes are unnecessarily drab or garish, although nylon mesh net skirts for chorus girls look pretty odd, especially under a maid’s apron. It’s not that Ryan Howell’s set design is hideous, although the long, narrow stage with audience and support beams on either side can result in inauspicious sightlines. No, the problems are two-fold:
1) Maranda Debusk’s lighting design positions some lights just above the heads of people on one side of the audience, and they shine into the eyes of audience members on the opposite side.
2) Stage fog fills the performance tent whenever a trap door is opened, and the over-reliance on stage fog becomes oppressive.
Add in iffy spotlight operation and the show seems under-lit to the point of murkiness.

Director Brian Clowdus has imposed a concept on "Ragtime," setting it in a supposed vaudeville tent in Atlantic City, with Harry Houdini (Ethan Hall) and Evelyn Nesbit (Niki Badua) as purported hosts. The concept doesn’t really work. "Ragtime" is a pretty serious show, and the vaudeville concept doesn’t add any fun to the proceedings. Having Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit appear in scenes of which they’re not essentially a part just underlines that this is a "concept" show. Neither gives a particularly spectacular performance. Mr. Hall has an accent that seems to come and go, and Ms. Badua does most of her singing while swinging on a trapeze, which does nothing good for the quality of her voice. They do have nice costumes, however.

Mr. Clowdus seems to have directed his actors to focus on the grimness and grit of the piece. Father (Daniel Burns) is a fairly humorless character, so that makes sense for him, but the balance of the piece is thrown off when Mother (Courtney Chappelle) has a stolid hardness that makes her unapproachable and unlikeable. Marcus Terrell Smith is basically expressionless as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., although he has a velvety smooth voice, making Nicole Vanessa Ortiz do all the work as Sarah to develop a relationship with him. Tateh (Jacob S. Louchheim) has some comic flourishes to his character, but Mr. Clowdus has him trample a U.S. flag to the ground in one scene, making it hard to feel too much compassion for him. Chase Davidson has the requisite earnestness for his role as Younger Brother, and Lilliangina Quiñones, as Emma Goldman, has the requisite fire for her role and comes across as the most fully realized character in the piece. Everyone else is adequate in their roles and/or has little chance to shine.

The script of "Ragtime" relies on narration to set time and place, so it’s not essential that representational sets be used, but having characters hop on blocks or on the central round platform makes them look too much like trained elephants in the big top. There’s a drastic disparity between scenes played center stage, with actors basically contorting themselves to present their faces to each side of the audience in rapid succession, and scenes played at either end of the stage, while the actors remain basically motionless. Some audience members will see only backs or support posts as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. plays the piano at the far end of the stage that hosts the orchestra or when actors clump together at the trapeze at the near end of the long stage. When not onstage, the actors lounge on seats intermingled with the audience, so close-up views of the cast are possible, just not necessarily when they are actively performing.

Musical director Chris Brent Davis gets great sound out of the orchestra and lush vocals from the cast, with Rob Brooksher’s sound design keeping things pretty well in balance. Early in the run, though, some choral entrances and harmonies were deficient. Ms. Chappelle’s voice doesn’t blend well with her duet partners, diminishing the impact of those numbers.

As for Bubba Carr’s choreography, he doesn’t have much to work with. There’s only one impressive dancer in the bunch (CJ Babb, whose non-period hairstyle makes him stand out like a contemporary time traveler to 1906), so most of the choreography is massed movements on the very narrow stage. Action director Jake Guinn has created a nice fight scene, and trapeze and block-and-tackle work adds some movement to the show, but in a fashion that is more likely to elicit "ehs" and "ohs" rather than "oohs" and "aahs."

Christopher S. Dills’ props are pretty minimal, with the most notable being oversized paper currency that comes into play as J.P. Morgan describes his wealth. For Coalhouse’s Model T, suitcases provide the body and doors, four white lace parasols provide the wheels, two hand-held lighting cans represent the headlights, and seating is on the round central platform that is just big enough for two people (although it sometimes hosts three in other scenes, in vertiginous fashion). It’s the sort of staging in which we get the point, but feel somewhat cheated in the production values.

Evelyn Nesbit’s career led her from the heights of fame to third-rate vaudeville and burlesque houses. Serenbe’s "Ragtime" has the feel of a powerful show being reduced to being performed in a temporary tent to audiences of gnats and mosquitoes. Is the show still powerful? Yes. Does the production give the material its full due? No. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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