On opening night, I had a ringside seat to experience a theatrical event that I can honestly say is unrivaled by any I have ever witnessed in the Triangle. By forging together a stunning and inspired cast, a creative team of masterful craftsmen and women, and a script that was brilliant long before it was adapted for the stage, PlayMakers Repertory Company has brought a performance to life that is so rich, so exciting, and so moving as to defy superlatives.

E. L. Doctorow‘s fantastic novel Ragtime combines music, reality, and fiction in such a way as to blend the real and the unreal into a tapestry of splendor and brilliance. When it was adapted for the stage by Terrance McNally, scored by Stephen Flaherty with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, this trio was able to breathe life into Doctorow’s words. The musical has been performed worldwide to rave reviews from both critics and audiences alike. But even though I have been witness to this show many times before now, I have never been so knocked out by such a production as this one. Broadway director Zi Alikhan uses the entirety of the interior of the Paul Green Theatre to recreate New York at the turn of the twentieth century. In a work much more sung than spoken, more danced than blocked, PRC’s Tracy Bersley entwines these performers in such a way as to entrance; we are hooked before we know it and swept up in a whirlwind of drama and dream.

Musical director Mark Hartman returns to PRC for his tenth production, bringing his considerable talents to bear in such a way as to transcend his work in even such brilliant PRC shows as Assassins, Sweeney Todd, and Othello. Due to the necessity of keeping his wand before the cast, PRC uses technology to transmit Hartman’s location to the stage via closed-circuit TV. Particularly because of the staging, a large percentage of the audience is able to experience his work as well. By placing the screen under the portico of the entrance to the theater, Hartman becomes visible to more than half of the audience. From my seat, which was directly behind center stage, I was able to view Hartman’s direction as clearly and easily as the cast. It created, for those able to view it, an entirely different aspect of stage production than an audience ever gets to see; the combination is nearly spellbinding.

The design of this staging is one I have never seen used in PRC’s notably rich history. By creating levels of staging using every corner and nook of the theater, PRC places these actors in and among the audience. One might be sitting above, below, behind, or even next to a performer at any given moment; it creates the effect of becoming a part of what is happening, as if we were an individual walking the streets of New York in 1906. The seemingly small center stage is a movable platform where the central parts of the play unfold. With a simple push, the entire stage glides stage right to become one with a wide and formidable staircase that raises the actors well above those audience members at stage level. Because the audience sits, not just “in the round,” but actually amid the performance, director Alikhan uses these multiple levels to create different locales within the work. Because, for example, Sarah (AnnEliza Canning), a young black woman with a newborn child, comes to reside in the attic of the central family’s home, she sings several of her songs from a height against the wall, stage left of center. This allows Alikhan to literally bring her down from her bower to meet her man, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Fergie L. Philippe), after several Sundays of his visits to the family home, where he serenades her with his ragtime music on the family’s piano. It is this kind of nuance that is woven into every moment of this performance, matching the nuanced and inspired characters created by this cast, twenty voices strong.

There are many familiar faces within the cast, chosen from among the PRC’s ample company and augmented by veteran actors from around the Triangle and around the country. Philippe, for example, received a BFA from Elon University and is now a national actor who has appeared on Broadway. Mother is portrayed by local actress and director Lauren Kennedy, who has Broadway credits of her own, is on loan from her company, Theatre Raleigh. And the role of Harry Houdini is spun by Sebastiani Romagnolo, a New York actor with a long history of creative NYC-based theatre. This combination of talents from across the country brings an eclectic mix to the cast that is every bit as varied and complex as is New York itself, home of Ellis Island and a myriad of immigrant creativity. It is the bringing together of all of this burgeoning talent that makes this production of Ragtime thunder off the stage.

Every member of this ensemble is an actor/singer/dancer in this almost operatic show. The highlights are innumerable, but include dynamic duets, such as the many shared by Sarah and Coalhouse, “The Wheels of a Dream” and “Sarah Brown Eyes,” to name only two. “Our Children,” the touching and foretelling duet between Mother and an immigrant filmmaker, Tateh (PRC’s own Adam Poole), creates a mood that is unique. Mother’s transformation during the show, from a sheltered and naïve wife to a woman shaped and scarred by history, is brought out in solos such as the one in the closing moments of the show, “Back to Before.” And the multifaceted history of Coalhouse himself, from his love for Sarah to the towering injustice of his terrible mistreatment at the hands of society, is underscored by such solos as “Justice,” and “Make Them Hear You.”

The complexity of this work requires the creation of multiple singing ensembles, each comprised of characters from Ellis Island, New Rochelle, or Harlem. The entire company combines their voices to bring us the stunning and uplifting strains of “Ragtime,” “Wheels of a Dream,” and “Until We Reach That Day,” which speaks to the hope of a world unhindered by prejudice and hate. To be immersed, as we were, within this microcosm of world events ranging from the exploration of the North Pole to the beginning of the first World War, is to experience a theatrical event that I can only try to describe in its stunning beauty and exemplary richness. It is a night I shall not soon forget. I speak not only a prediction but also a certainty: if you see this fantastic performance you will not fail to be moved to your core.

Ragtime continues through Sunday, December 15. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.