Duluth Playhouse bringing resonant 'Ragtime' to NorShor Theatre
Since debuting on Broadway in 1998, the sweeping musical has become a standard of the American stage.
DULUTH — When Jarius Cliett steps onstage at the NorShor Theatre on Friday, it will be a moment he's waited over a decade for. "I originally auditioned for Coalhouse Walker Jr. when I was in high school," the actor said. "That was 11 years ago. And I ended up not getting it."
Still, the central character in the musical "Ragtime" stuck with Cliett. "Up until that point, I don't think I'd seen a character that reflected me as as a Black man and as a person of color in (that) way on stage."
The Atlanta-based actor will play Coalhouse in the Duluth Playhouse production of "Ragtime," which opens Friday and runs through April 3. Director Phillip Fazio, who's led three previous productions elsewhere, said that when he joined the Playhouse in 2020, he was surprised to discover Duluth hadn't seen a professional production of the musical.
"I just thought it was the right show for the right moment," Fazio said. "It's a beautiful, poignant show that I think will speak very powerfully to the world of today."
"Ragtime" is set in the world of yesterday: New York circa the early 20th century. Based on the acclaimed 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, "Ragtime" follows the journeys of three fictional families as they intersect with one another — as well as with real-life historical figures including Booker T. Washington (Gabriel Mayfield), Henry Ford (Sam Hildestad) and Harry Houdini (Antony Ferguson).
"This is the era of the birth of the modern sense of celebrity," said Rebecca Katz Harwood, associate professor of dance and musical theatre at the University of Minnesota Duluth. It was also the era of an immigration boom, represented onstage by the characters of a Latvian-American artist (Jace LeGarde) and his young daughter (Sofia Salmela).
Fazio saw "Ragtime" during its original Broadway run, which lasted from 1998 to 2000. "It was always a show that I deeply connected to," he said. "I come from immigrant ancestry. My immigrants came over from Italy as visual artists around the turn of the century as well. It's always been a show that really hits a nerve with me."
Adapted by playwright Terrence McNally with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, "Ragtime" also hit a nerve with its depictions of racist violence. The story "was meant to be a reflection of where we were, but also where we might be," Cliett said. "You can take different bits and pieces of this musical and (say), we've gotten so much better ... and also, God, we've got some work to do."
In Duluth, Harwood noted, "we certainly have our own history to reckon with, especially with the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie lynchings that are just over 100 years old now."
Minnesota's history of racist violence didn't end there. "It definitely is not lost on me where I am," Cliett said. "Minnesota has been a very hot place in terms of racial tension and things in the past two years, and that was something I really had to come to terms with before I got on my plane, even before I left my house."
The script doesn't elide the terms in which hatred was, and is, expressed. "We had a very serious conversation early on in the process about the very harsh, yet realistic language that is in the show, especially as it relates to people of color and immigrants," Cliett said. "The cast and the creative team have been great about making sure everybody feels safe and comfortable."
Harwood and Fazio both observed that "Ragtime" is, to the United States, somewhat akin to what "Les Miserables" is to France.
"In terms," explained Harwood, "of it being a show that takes on the big sweep of history, and tries to ground it in the stories of individual people."
The musical's enduring appeal, Harwood said, is due both to its thematic resonance and "the rhythmic appeal of the score. I still think that the opening number of 'Ragtime' is one of the great openings of 20th century musical theater. Stephen Flaherty is brilliant as a composer, the way he builds the tension and release in the music."
"It's a big, grand, epic, sweeping show with absolutely gut-wrenching and heart-tugging songs, both solos and powerfully epic group numbers," Fazio said. "It takes the audience on a journey, and it doesn't let go for two and a half hours."
Cliett said he's especially come to cherish the songs "Sarah Brown Eyes" and "Wheels of a Dream." Both have him sharing the stage with fellow cast member Jessica Money, who portrays his character's sweetheart Sarah. "Jessica is just so fun to play around with," he said. "We've become really good friends off stage ... there's a lot of acting moments between the two of us, really just enjoying that space of being together."
"I love the the moment of 'Success,'" said Fazio, mentioning an early ensemble number, "where we meet three different groups of immigrants coming off of boats, going through Ellis Island, going through customs, going through immigration, and then arriving in New York City with wide eyes, hope and joy, and so much excitement for the future. Then as it goes along, we see that it gets a little bumpy."
Harwood pointed out there have been attempts to create an immersive production of "Ragtime" on Ellis Island. Duluth also experienced the immigrant influx — and it had its equivalents of the characters Mother (Christina Stroup) and Father (Ole Dack), who live in the prosperous New York suburb of New Rochelle.
"Can you imagine doing the show on the grounds of Glensheen?" Harwood asked. "Mother and Father could be Chester and Clara, in some ways."
Though Harwood emphasized she didn't want to overstate the comparison, "there are definitely some similarities between New Rochelle of 1906 and Duluth of 1906."
There's also a potentially confusing similarity between Duluth and an identically-named city near Cliett's hometown of Atlanta. "It's so funny," said Cliett, who's also performed onstage in Duluth, Georgia. "One of my uncles messaged me this morning, like, 'Hey, where can I get tickets? I'm going to come see you.' And then he quickly texted back, 'I just realized it's the wrong Duluth.'"
Tickets are available now at duluthplayhouse.org.