Ragtime

It was an emotional return to the stage Wednesday evening, as Nashville Repertory Theatre welcomed a small but eager audience to its final dress rehearsal of Ragtime, which officially opens tonight at Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Polk Theater. Nearly 20 months after suspending live productions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company kicked off its 37th season in grand fashion.

Based on the sweeping novel by E. L. Doctorow (and featuring a book by Terrence McNally), Ragtime uses Stephen Flaherty’s glorious music and Lynn Ahrens’ often-incisive lyrics to explore the American experience in early 20th-century New York from three distinctive perspectives — that of a wealthy white family, a determined Jewish immigrant and a gifted Black musician. Added to the mix are key historical figures, from Booker T. Washington and Emma Goldman to J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and even the escape artist Harry Houdini.

It’s an ambitious and complicated piece of work, to be sure — and notoriously tough to stage, thanks to the huge cast, quick scene changes and formidable technical elements (a Ford Model T  figures heavily in the plot). Perhaps even more challenging, however, is the unwieldy storyline, which lacks a certain subtlety and can feel rather disjointed as it ricochets between deep-seated prejudice and the plight of the poor to celebrity sensations and the joys of baseball.

Of course, much has been written about the musical’s timely themes and continued relevance. And yes, the parallels are striking, especially when you consider that Doctorow’s novel came out in 1975, and the musical had its world premiere in ’96. Ragtime’s frank depiction of social injustice, racial violence and anti-immigrant bigotry feels all-too current. But there’s also a prominent white savior narrative that’s hard to ignore, and with issues of basic rights and equality still dominating the nation’s headlines, it’s difficult to fully embrace the inherent optimism of the show’s final moments.

To its credit, the Rep has taken great care to include diverse voices in the production process, putting together a stellar creative team that includes a number of notable debuts. The company also presented various panel discussions, and brought in a mental health provider to address (and help cast members process) the work’s more harrowing scenes.

But whatever reservations you may have about the material itself, Ragtime is hard to resist when it’s firing on all cylinders. And there’s no denying the polish of this production. Micah-Shane Brewer is impressive in his Rep directorial debut, demonstrating a clear vision and making the most of the largely episodic script. More importantly, he has assembled a wonderful ensemble of 35 players that includes a solid mix of new and familiar talent.

It’s also lovely to see the Rep back in the Polk Theater for the first time since 2008 — a move that opens up plenty of design possibilities. Scenic Designer Gary C. Hoff frames the story with a sleek industrial set, while Cody Stockstill’s projections add context and draw us further into the action. Darren Levin’s lighting also is effective, guiding the eye and smoothing scene changes. And Lori Gann-Smith’s costumes capture the period, while highlighting each character’s background and social standing.

Dave Ragland’s musical direction is superb, and vocal director Randy Craft (who also leads a smart 12-piece orchestra) also deserves mention for his considerable contributions. And though Ragtime is not necessarily known as a big dance show, Tosha Marie’s choreography is excellent, particularly in numbers such as “The Gettin’ Ready Rag” and “Henry Ford.”

It’s marvelous to have Justin Marriel Boyd back in Nashville after a stretch in New York City, and he makes a memorable Rep debut in the pivotal role of Coalhouse Walker Jr., lending his rich voice to songs like “Make Them Hear You.” Young Shelby Denise Smith (still a student at Lipscomb University) also is outstanding as Sarah, offering a stirring rendition of “Your Daddy’s Son.” And while both shine individually, together they deliver some of the evening’s most powerful moments with “Sarah Brown Eyes” and “Wheels of a Dream.”

Megan Murphy Chambers is simply radiant as Mother. Her voice soars in big ballads such as “Back to Before,” and yet she still manages to bring a bit of nuance to the role. Likewise, Garris Wimmer turns in a thoughtful performance as Tateh, commanding the stage in “Gliding” and “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.”

These lead actors receive ample support from the likes of Galen Fott, who, as the often under-played Father, provides a truly affecting take on “New Music.” Other standouts include Nancy Allen (a revelation as the fiery Emma Goldman) and Steven McCoy as the earnest Younger Brother. When he blasts Father for his failure to embrace, or even acknowledge, societal changes (“You’ve travelled everywhere and learned nothing”), some audience members spontaneously cheered.

Indeed, there are many moments — most notably Act I’s closer “Till We Reach That Day” — that feel as if the cast is directly addressing the audience, challenging us to look within and do better. So let’s celebrate the fine work happening at the Rep this weekend. And let’s absolutely celebrate the return of live theater. But let’s also make sure that we dig a little deeper, confronting some hard truths about our so-called progress. And let’s continue the conversation — not only about the work onstage, but also the work we still have to do within ourselves and our communities.

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