Review: RAGTIME at Serenbe is exceptional entertainment

By Jody Key — Managing Editor –May 22, 2019

The Atlantic City Boardwalk has been transplanted to Atlanta for a limited time. Serenbe Playhouse takes audiences on a nostalgic trip back in time to the early 20th century with RAGTIME, a high-energy romp which on the surface is as giddy as the boardwalk and glitzy as the casinos, yet look just below the surface and you find a tale of intolerance that tugs at your heartstrings. This production is a beautiful rendition of the 1975 novel by EL Doctorow. Opening on Broadway in 1998, RAGTIME went on to receive 13 Tony nominations, and won in the categories Best Featured Actress (McDonald), Original Score, Book, and Orchestrations. 

Serenbe’s latest unique immersive outdoor theater experience is a cut above, and audiences will once again thrill at this goosebumps inducing spectacle. This is easily one of the best productions of the Atlanta theater season and is a theatrical masterpiece. Especially impressive are the vocals and music under the capable musical direction of Chris Brent Davis and the sound expertly mixed by Rob Brooksher, as well as the beautiful accents of Miranda Debusk’s lighting design.

This story highlights three distinct groups: African Americans, Upper-class suburbanites, and immigrants. The three pivotal characters in each group are Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a Harlem musician; Mother, a New Rochelle houswife; and Tateh, a Jewish Immigrant from Latvia. Peppered throughout the story are also historical figures: Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbitt, Booker T. Washington, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Stanford White, Harry Kendall Thaw, Admiral Peary, Matthew Henson, and Emma Goldman. This story takes historical fact and weaves a fictional tale that resonates with issues our nation still struggles with 100 years later.

Director Brian Clowdus has taken the field behind the Farmhouse and transformed it into an elaborate reconstruction of the Atlantic City Boardwalk. The makeshift theater has a circus meets old-time church revival quality as it resides under a big-top style tent. The long narrow stage is flanked in 3/4 of audience space which includes the orchestra located upstage.

The entire ensemble delivers a delightful performance which draws the audience in from the opening number. This show runs the gamut of emotions, as Harry Houdini, played by Ethan Hall, along with Evelyn Nesbit, played by Niki Badua, move the story along and provide highly entertaining continuity.

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Harry Houdini (Ethan Hall) Evelyn Nesbit (Niki Badua)

Nicole Vanessa Ortiz’s portrayal of Sarah is poignant and powerful. She has a rich, unique and beautiful voice. Paired with Sarah is her lover, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. played by Marcus Terrell Smith, a powerful presence on stage with an equally powerful voice.

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Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Marcus Terrell Smith)

Courtney Chappelle plays Mother with the perfect balance of poise, compassion, and determination. Alongside Mother is Little Boy, played by Pilot Bunch who we came to know and love as Boy in SHENANDOAH, and delivers another endearing performance. Chappelle commands the stage as the matriarch of the New Rochelle family. Mother navigates her duties as head of the household while Father is away with Admiral Peary on a North Pole expedition.

Mother (Courtney Chappelle)

Jacob S Louchheim’s Tateh, the Jewish Immigrant from Latvia highlights the American Dream. Tateh’s determination to provide a better life for his daughter, Little Girl, played by the adorable Elyse Corbett, is manifested in his artistic ability. Louchheim delivers an authentic performance which endears the audience to his character.

Tateh (Jacob S Louchheim)

Other Key-noteworthy performances include Adam Washington as Booker T Washington, Daniel Burns as Father, and Jeremy Gee as Willy Conklin.

Overall, RAGTIME is a hot ticket and a definite Key-noteworthy must-see with its spectacular set vivacious vocals, and poignant performances. Tickets are available at http://www.serenbeplayhouse.com/shows-events/current-season and RAGTIME runs until June 6th.

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