American Stage’s ‘Ragtime – the Musical’ plays through May 14 at Demens Landing Park.
BY J.A. JONES, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — American Stage’s “Ragtime- the Musical,” based on the widely acclaimed E.L. Doctorow novel — and often remembered as a film starring Howard Rollins in the breakout role of Coalhouse Walker — is playing through May 14 at Demens Landing Park.
The musical interweaves the story of a wealthy white family, an immigrant family and a Black family in turn-of-the-century New York, setting their human dramas against a rapidly changing historical environment.
With music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and a book by Terrence McNally, the Tony-award-winning musical has been brought to St. Petersburg under the direction of the powerhouse talent of Erica Sutherlin.
Her recent turn directing the explosive and vibrant production of “Dutchman” at American Stage proved the multi-hyphenated St. Pete “artivist” — Sutherlin is a film writer and director, as well as a performer and poet — remains among a new generation of change-makers in the Tampa Bay arts and culture scene.
Responsible for several “firsts” as a Black woman in Tampa Bay theater, she acknowledged, “I always want to be on the wave, the current or pulse of change, so [this] moment was goal come true — not a dream but a goal, one in which I strive to foster and repeat.”
This time she leads a nine-piece band and a 20-plus-person cast of local teachers, community members, students and a Broadway veteran. Sutherlin noted that the most exciting part of the production has been building and working with her artistic team.
Sutherlin was given free rein to build her own team and pulled together a creative team primarily made up of women, including a lead creative team of women of color.
“We talk a lot about the need for women of color to have more creative leadership opportunities in the industry; we can keep talking about it or do something. I choose to do something, so every time I have the opportunity to hire women of color in leadership roles, I try. And during this production, not only were we able to hire women of color — but the majority of my team was female.”
Her team collaborators include her Latina assistant director/fellow Alexa Perez, musical director Latoya McCormick, choreographer Heather Beal-Himes and scenic director Teresa Williams – all Black women.
Her lighting designer, Dalton Hamilton, is also her former student from the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School.
Another one of her former students, scenic painter Michaela Dougherty and her assistant stage manager Charlotte Quandt, are also Black women.
Sutherlin acknowledged all of the other females who joined the production, including her stage manager, Chloe Dipaola, her costume team, including her former PCCA student Macy Smith and Hannah Hockman and her production fellows, Meyah Fortier and Megan Phillips.
“I cannot thank enough Scott Cooper, chair of Theater at St. Petersburg College, for his continued partnership with American Stage and the theater community in general,” she added. He’s always training his students to work in the real world.”
Sutherlin was also thrilled about the diversity she’s been able to bring to her casting decisions. “Super excited about the diversity in my cast. I know that the story calls for diversity but for me, I truly tried to diversify in race, age, physicality, orientation, and gender. For example, “Grandfather” is played by an Asian-American female,” she shared.
The largely local cast gives award-worthy performances, including St. Pete resident and Broadway veteran Larry Alexander in the role of “Father” and actor and theater instructor at Dunedin High School Anthony Gervais as “Harry Houdini.” Senior director of Arts and Cultural Programming for Creative Pinellas Beth Gelman and vocalist Siobhan Monique of Ancestral Funk and St. Pete nonprofit RaceWithoutIsm also grace the stage in ensemble roles.
Two of American Stage’s educational program students, Nigel Bailey and Noah Jordan, are also performing for the first time in one of the theater’s park shows.
From outside the area, actors Dante Murray (Coalhouse Walker), Sarah Middough (Mother), Leah Stewart (Sarah) and Billy Goldstein (Tateh) all give stellar performances as well.
There were several challenges along the way to opening night, including paring down the number of actors playing 50 to 60 characters to just 21 actors.
Choreographer Heather Beal had to bring movement to life with a cast primarily of non-dancers but expressed great satisfaction with the experience.
“I grew up surrounded by Black women in charge; it is an environment I feel the safest and most creative,” said Beal. “Being a part of this “herstoric” team is incredible. I feel seen, heard, and valued — particularly by the director, Erica Sutherlin. Working with her and the musical director, Latoya McCormick, has been such a joy.”
Sutherlin summed up her experience with satisfaction. “This production is so beautiful. You can see the actors, musicians, and crew’s hard work every night — just pouring their love of theater into each moment. That’s what makes it so powerful even beyond the amazing score and story: the people who bring it to life every night.”
You still have time to catch “Ragtime,” running this Wednesday through May 14, at 7:30 p.m. each night at Demens Landing, Bayshore Drive and Second Avenue SE. For information, visit americanstage.org.