PRC’s Rendition of Ragtime, As Reimagined by Director Zi Alikhan, Is Gutsy and Fresh

Ragtime stars AnnEliza Canning as Sarah and Fergie L. Phillipe as Coalhouse (photo by HuthPhoto)
Ragtime stars AnnEliza Canning-Skinner as Sarah and Fergie L. Phillipe as Coalhouse (photo by HuthPhoto)

Your sword can be a sermon, or the power of the pen.
Teach every child to raise his voice, and then, my brothers, then
Will justice be demanded by ten million righteous men.
Make them hear you.

Lyricist Lynn Ayrens from the song,
Make Them Hear You” from Ragtime

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Set in early 20th century America, PlayMakers Repertory Company’s current production of Ragtime embodies issues that are still relevant more than 100 years later — distrust and dislike of immigrants and the exploitation of their labor, women’s rights, and racial prejudice and the violence that it engenders. Lighthearted moments interwoven with these serious themes provide the counterpoint that makes Ragtime a timeless piece of theater.

Based on E.L. Doctorow’s popular 1975 historical novel of the same name, the musical features music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and a book by Terrence McNally. Ragtime distills Doctorow’s complex narrative into songs and dialogue, weaving fictional and historical figures into the account.

We follow three families: the upper middle-class white family in New Rochelle (“Where there were no Negroes and there were no immigrants …”) consisting of Father, Mother, Younger Brother, Grandfather, and Little Boy; the Jewish immigrant artist Tateh and Little Girl; and Coalhouse Walker, a well-to-do Harlem piano player, his lover Sarah, and their infant son. These characters interact with the likes of anarchist Emma Goldman, automobile manufacturer Henry Ford, educator Booker T. Washington, financier J.P. Morgan, and magician Harry Houdini.

Lauren Kennedy makes her PlayMakers Rep debut, playing Mother in Ragtime (photo by HuthPhoto)

Most of us have already seen at least one production of Ragtime locally, on Broadway, or on PBS. But PlayMakers Repertory Company’s interpretation of the Tony Award®-winning musical is gutsy and fresh, under the direction of Zi Alikhan and a strong creative team. More specifically, Alikhan and scenic designer Mark Wendland have collaborated to use the Paul Green Theatre in an unusual and innovative way — placing the different locations (New York, Harlem, New Rochelle, etc.) behind, beside, and above the audience seating. The actors appear in modern clothes, heightening the comparison between America in 1906 and America today.

Fergie L. Philippe has a powerful voice and presence as Coalhouse, in his PlayMakers debut. The Elon University alum is equally at home dancing in the light and zippy “Gettin’ Ready Rag” and singing the heart-rending “Wheels of a Dream.” Phillipe and AnnEliza Canning-Skinner, in the role of Coalhouse’s lover Sarah, are the heart and soul of this production; and their performances are not to be missed.

Adam Poole is excellent as Tateh, who begins as a starving immigrant and transforms into a movie mogul, calling himself a Baron, no less. Poole’s performance has a strong emotional clarity — in his love for his daughter and determination to care for her, and later as he experiences the joy of success.

Lauren Kennedy makes her PlayMakers debut as Mother. Those of us who have been long on the local theater scene remember seeing Lauren as a teen in Raleigh shows, such as Bye Bye Birdie. Years have passed, and Lauren has returned from Broadway to be the producing artistic director of Theatre Raleigh. Now a seasoned performer and a mother in real life, her song “Back to Before” speaks to the changing roles of women.

Julia Gibson and Adam Poole star as Little Girl and Tateh Ragtime (photo by HuthPhoto)

In an unusual choice of casting, Julia Gibson plays two characters who often appear together in the same scenes. By simply picking up a teddy bear, Gibson transitions between famous activist Emma Goldman and a fragile young immigrant referred to in the script as Little Girl. Gibson is amazing to watch in this show, just as she was earlier in the year in the role of Mrs. Dalton in PlayMakers‘ production of Native Son.

To our delight, choreographer Tracy Bersley brings a 2019 sensibility to the choreography. (It is especially apparent in “Getting Ready Rag.”) In “What a Game,” baseball fans gesture, hock, and spit in unison to the horror of Father (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) and delight of Little Boy (Ray Dooley).

The Crime of the Century” is one of the more unusual bits of staging, in which Sarah Elizabeth Keyes performs the role of vaudeville star Evelyn Nesbit as a puppeteer, with a doll. Unusual bits of staging are part of what this production is all about. Sometimes, they are incredibly effective; sometimes, they are a tad confusing; but they are always challenging the audience to lean in and pay attention.

Ragtime stars Sarah Elizabeth Keyes (center) as Evelyn Nesbit, shown here with (clockwise from upper right) Ray Dooley, David Adamson, David Fine, and Sebastiana Romagnolo (photo by HuthPhoto)

Whenever I hear that local-boy-made-good Mark Hartman is flying down from NYC to music direct, it assures me that the music will be outstanding. Mark understands the challenges of doing a musical at PlayMakers Repertory Company, and is able to conjure a big sound — from a small band of seven musicians — for PRC’s rendition Ragtime .

Ragtime tackles difficult social justice issues and pulls no punches in its use of language. It tells a powerful story; and while it doesn’t flinch from exposing the dark side of the American Dream, it also celebrates its successes.

The show is long. Run-time is approximately three hours, including one 15-minute intermission. Pay attention to the seating chart when choosing your tickets. Sightlines are best in the seats behind the center entrance. Plan to arrive early to experience “NC360: A Virtual Reality Experience,” immersive recordings of North Carolinians’ immigration stories.

Ray Dooley (center) stars as Henry Ford in Ragtime (photo by HuthPhoto)

SECOND OPINION: Nov. 25th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review Susie Potter:; Nov. 20th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview Byron Woods:; and Nov. 18th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel (student newspaper) preview by Sarah Campbell:

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents RAGTIME at 2 p.m. Nov. 24, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 26 and 27 and 29, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 30, 2 p.m. Dec. 1, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 3-7, 2 p.m. Dec. 8, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 10-14, and 2 p.m. Dec. 15 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $15-$48 ($10 UNC students and $12 other college students), with discounts for UNC faculty and staff and U.S. military personnel, except $15 general admission ($10 for UNC students with ID) on Community Night (Tuesday, Nov. 26th).

BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY,, or

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529),, or

SHOW: and


2019-20 SEASON (Legacy Now):

PRESENTER:,,,, and

PRC BLOG (Page to Stage):

VENUE: and


NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.

NOTE 2: There will be an All-Access Performance, with sign-language interpretation and audio description by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 26th.

NOTE 3: There will be FREE post-show discussions, with members of the cast and creative team, following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 27th; 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 1st; and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3rd, and Tuesday, Dec. 10th, performances.

NOTE 4: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 30th (for more information, click here).

NOTE 5: Raleigh, NC-based Seed Art Share will offer two FREE Share the Show performances at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 30th, and Sunday, Dec. 8th, for parents and children aged 4-11. To register, click here.

NOTE 6: The Psychoanalytic Center of the Carolinas will sponsor a FREE post-show Mindplay psychoanalytic discussion after the show’s 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8th, performance.


Ragtime (1975 novel): (official web page) and (Wikipedia).

The Novel: (Google Books).

E.L. Doctorow (novelist, nee Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, 1931-2015): (official website), (Encyclopædia Britannica), (Internet Broadway Database), (Internet Movie Database), and (Wikipedia).

Ragtime: The Musical (1996 Toronto, 1998 Broadway, 2003 West End, and 2009 Broadway revival): and (Music Theatre International), (Internet Broadway Database), and (Wikipedia).

Stephen Flaherty (music): (official website), (PlayMakers Rep bio), (Internet Broadway Database), (Internet Movie Database), and (Wikipedia).

Lynn Ahrens (lyrics): (official website), (PlayMakers Rep bio), (Internet Broadway Database), (Internet Movie Database), and (Wikipedia).

Terrence McNally (book): (official website), (PlayMakers Rep bio), (Internet Broadway Database), (Internet Movie Database), and (Wikipedia).

Zi Alikhan (New York, NY director): (official website), (PlayMakers Rep bio), (Internet Broadway Database), (Facebook page), and (Twitter page).

REVIEWER: Nancy Rich is a local director/choreographer, with a love for the performing arts and a passion for supporting local artistic work. Nancy and her husband, Rod, own and operate Monkeybravo, a video production company. Nancy is one of the founders of Actors Comedy Lab and participates in local theater as a hired gun, a volunteer and, on very rare occasions, an actor. Nancy recently wrote a series of monologues called The PRINCESS Talks, performed at the 2017 Women’s Theatre Festival. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.