Dr. Blackwell's BLOG

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Theater Review: RAGTIME at Serenbe

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 22:54

Just five weeks after the spectacular production of RAGTIME was staged at Theater Under the Stars in Houston, an entirely different and very unique production of the show has found its way to the Tony-winning Serenbe playhouse in Serenbe, GA. This theater, about 30 minutes outside of Atlanta, is known for its incredibly unique stagings and productions that are far from traditional. 

Last year, the theater mounted what I concluded was an overall weak production of TITANIC, one of my all-time favorite musicals. The main issue with TITANIC lied in the overall weaker performers casted, who frankly didn’t have the singing talent necessary to pull off the demanding numbers of the show. That is certainly not the case with Serenbe’s RAGTIME; the performers here are absolutely incredibly talented and beyond capable. The orchestra also performs Stephen Flaherty’s score magnificently. 

The main story hinges around three composites of a changing American face at the dawn of the Twentieth Century. One, a rich upper-class White family, another African Americans, punctuated by the show’s main characters Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Sarah, and immigrants, portrayed through the eyes of Tateh and his “little girl.” The supporting characters of the show, which include showbiz harlet Evelyn Nesbit, Model T manufacturer Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, and Emma Goldman (among others) are also essential to ensuring the elaborate story unfolds competently. And unfortunately, the major criticism this staging of RAGTIME deserves concerns just how the story is conveyed.

The show is performed inside a giant circus tent in a Vaudeville style, with a very long center stage where the action occurs. That action occurs from one end of the tent to another, which makes following the scenes and scene transitions very difficult. Despite having VIP tickets, we were seated at one of end of the stage, which made it very challenging to see the various aspects of the crowded stage, with characters often flanking each other despite this having absolutely nothing to do with the plot. 

If you are unfamiliar with the show, you will find this claustrophobic approach to portraying the plot quite difficult to follow. One of the friends who saw the show with us on Saturday had never seen the show before; and he had absolutely no idea what it was about. At intermission, he was totally clueless as to what was going on. And by the show’s end, he remained entirely perplexed as to what the major elements of the plot were.

Now, if you know RAGTIME and are familiar with the show, you will LOVE this production, not because of its unique staging which is unfortunately much more of a distraction than enhancer, but because of the Broadway-worthy performers who blow every single number OUT OF THE PARK! Courtney Chappelle (Mother), Chase Davidson (Mother’s Younger Brother), Jacob S. Louchheim (Tateh), Marcus Terrell Smith (Coalhouse Walker, Jr.), and Nicole Vanessa Ortiz (Sarah) are enormously talented and can really act and sing. Despite the awkward and inappropriate Vaudeville theme the show is framed through, these performers REALLY make this theater-going experience absolutely worthwhile. 

I applaud Serenbe for experimenting theatrically with traditional shows; but it’s essential to ensure the format in which a show is presented serves only to enhance it rather than significantly detract from it. Director Brian Clowdus made a heck of a blunder in thinking a Vaudeville-staging of RAGTIME, which deals with quite serious and nuanced thematic material, would be appropriate to the source material. The potential of what this show could’ve been is astronomical and limitless given its phenomenal cast.  But what’s here amounts to a silly, frenetic, and very questionable production that is chuck full of talent that this production simply doesn’t do justice. This doesn’t mean I don’t recommend the show—I DO! But, don’t expect to see RAGTIME how it should be presented. Instead, go for the incredible performances, hair-raising musical numbers performed by superbly capable performers, and a supporting orchestra that plays its lush and gorgeous Tony-winning musical score to absolute perfection. For ticket information, visit: http://www.serenbeplayhouse.com/ragtime.

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