Stafford Arima, an associate of director Frank Galati on Ragtime since its inception, stages the resident professional premiere of the Tony Award-winning musical — in the round, yet — at North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, MA, May 14-June 2.
The arena-style stage of North Shore will allow a "close proximity" to the work, Arima told Playbill On-Line between rehearsals. "Staging the show is going to be different, but the show is going to work on a more intimate level than it ever has before," he said, adding that the work will be more actor-driven than ever, underlining the inherent storytelling quality of the show.
On Broadway, on tour and on its subsequent non-Equity tour, Ragtime featured a literal Model T as part of the world of the show, which is inspired by the E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name. The car will make an appearance in the round, too, driving in from the "vom."
"A brand new Model T is being built for this production," Arima said. "It will make a journey in the round. The Model T is a character and it's not something you can simply reference or imagine...we need to see it and it needs to be as authentic as possible."
The North Shore script reflects changes made after the Broadway staging and the Equity national tours. The song, "He Wanted to Say," has been cut and replaced by a new scene by book writer Terrence McNally. Act Two opens with Coalhouse's soliloquy, which begins, "Say goodbye to music...," rather than with a Houdini magic trick or The Little Boy's nightmare (seen on Broadway and on tour, respectively). The North Shore version reflects the 2001 non-Equity staging's script, which was revised by the creators. Of the cutting of "He Wanted to Say," lyricist Lynn Ahrens told Playbill On-Line, "I was the one who wanted to do it. I've been pushing to do that since before it went on Broadway. I said, 'This is a great song but it's slowing down Act Two, because it's sung by secondary characters.' And we had all these big, anthem-like sort of things in a row. Somebody said, 'Oh, Lynn, shut up, OK? Try it for the non-Equity production.' We saw it, and it was so startling to see it not there that I can't quite say it was a good idea, but I know it wasn't a bad idea. We're gonna withhold judgment until we see it again."
Of the licensed script that will be available to theatres and schools, Ahrens said, "We're gonna put out a 'preferred version' but offer other songs that were cut in case people do want to use them."
Ahrens and Ragtime composer Stephen Flaherty will see two of their shows open in September: A revised version of Seussical the Musical will begin touring and their new work, A Man of No Importance, written with Terrence McNally, gets its world premiere at Lincoln Center Theatre. Ahrens, Flaherty and McNally all won 1998 Tony Awards for their work on Ragtime.
The North Shore cast of Ragtime includes some alumni of past productions of the musical. Alan H. Green is Coalhouse, Ann Van Cleave is Mother, Joel Briel is Tateh, Nikki Renee Daniels is Sarah, Joseph Dellger is Father. The company includes LaToya D. Brown, Kathy Calahan, Dioni Michelle Collins, Edwardyne Cowan, Jeff Cyronik, Craig Davenport, Dick Deccareau, Antoinette DiPietropolo, Colleen Hawks, Chad Hudson, Janice Lorraine and Tracey Moore.
Candace Jennings, a resident choreographer of the show in the past, choreographs. Arima directed the non-Equity Ragtime tour, and served as resident director of the Broadway production. He was associate director of Broadway's Seussical and A Class Act.
Arima said the show's themes are timeless. "Even more so today [than in 1997, when it premiered on Broadway] the show resonates on a deeper level," Arima said, "In many, many ways the show is about conflicting philosophies...this is a story about difference and inevitably about embracing those differences, such as race, religion, politics, sex. When people see this show today, I think Terrence is holding a mirror up to today's society. The issues that these families in the show are dealing with are issues we still live with today. Technology has advanced far quicker than our hearts have."
Designers for the North Shore staging are Dex Edwards (set), Jack Mehler (lighting) and Jay Woods (costume coordination). Mark McLaren is musical director.
Tickets range $24-$62. For information, call (978) 232-7200 or visit www.nsmt.org.
To view Playbill On-Line's Brief Encounter interview with Lynn Ahrens, in which she discusses Ragtime, Seussical, A Man of No Importance and Once on This Island (which had a May 12 reunion concert on Broadway), click here.