The themes — immigration, racial conflict, economic disparity, widening roles for women — are resonantly of the moment. But the massive Actors’ Playhouse musical opening Friday at the Miracle Theatre opened on Broadway in 1998, and its story takes place in turn-of-the-20th-century America.
Ragtime, with its Tony Award-winning Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens score and Tony-winning book by playwright Terrence McNally, is a thrilling opera-scale piece of musical theater. And given the state of the world today, it remains relevant in ways that are both chilling and inspiring.
“Ragtime shows how far we’ve come yet how much we haven’t fixed. It’s a period piece, but people will realize how much there is to do,” says artistic director David Arisco, who is staging the show. “It takes place 100 years ago, but it deals with the haves and have-nots, immigration and the American Dream, and racial tensions.”
Born from E.L. Doctorow’s sweeping 1975 novel, which mixes invented characters and historical figures, Ragtime focuses on three groups: an upper-class suburban white family, a black ragtime piano player-composer and the mother of his baby boy, and a Jewish widower bringing his daughter to America from Eastern Europe in hopes of a better life.
The original production of the musical had 50 in the cast, the revival 30. Arisco is going with 40 actors onstage — 37 adults, plus 6 kids who will alternate in the roles of the white family’s young son, the immigrant’s daughter and the black musician’s son. The production’s daunting numbers include nearly 300 costumes and a budget of $390,000.
“This is as exciting as hell,” Arisco says. “The cast, the voices, the dancing, the choreography, the storytelling are just epic... It’s Ahrens and Flaherty’s masterpiece.”
“It’s the only musical of its type that I’ve worked on, and it’s the biggest. The voices are magnificent,” says Ron Hutchins, the Carbonell Award-winning choreographer. “It’s much more challenging than a show with big dance breaks. Every number has little vignettes.”
McNally, whose Mothers and Sons (produced in September at GableStage) is up for four Carbonells including best production of a play, remembers the process of creating Ragtime.
“Doctorow famously didn’t like the  film. He said, ‘They ruined my wonderful book.’ I auditioned for this job and wrote a 60-page outline with some dialogue, a blueprint for the show. We sent it to quite a few [composer-lyricist teams], and seven or eight responded,” McNally says. “We didn’t know who had submitted each tape when we listened to them. But when we opened the No. 6 envelope, we discovered it was Lynn and Stephen. It was literally a blind audition... Their music had the sweep and vision the show needed.”
McNally says the show’s music “gives it a grandeur and implies an emotional richness.” He remains happy with how he put the story onstage, but lauds the richness of the source material.
“It’s all in Doctorow. We kept going back to a well that never ran dry,” he says.
Arisco’s cast, gathered in auditions spread over nearly a year, is a mixture of Florida- and New York-based actors, many of whom have worked at Actors’ Playhouse multiple times.
Melissa Minyard, who played Cosette in Les Misérables on Broadway; Mark Sanders, part of the Carbonell-nominated cast of Murder Ballad at Actors’ Playhouse; and Dominique Scott, who was in the Rock of Ages national tour, play the suburbanites Mother, Father and Younger Brother respectively. Tally Sessions, a two-time Carbonell Award winner who starred in Floyd Collins at Actors’, is the Jewish immigrant Tateh. Don Juan Seward II, who toured nationally in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is the musician Coalhouse Walker Jr., and opera-trained Sarah Nicole Batts plays Coalhouse’s beloved Sarah. Nick Duckart plays Willie Conklin, whose confrontations with Coalhouse lead to tragedy.
Playing the historical figures are Irene Adjan as Emma Goldman, Ken Clement as J.P. Morgan, Joshua Dobarganes as Harry Houdini, Stephanie White as Evelyn Nesbit, Reggie Whitehead as Booker T. Washington and Gabriel Zenone as Henry Ford.
“The music is incredible, and to hear 37 people singing it is epic,” says Sanders, choosing a word that many involved with this Ragtime use to describe it. “There’s something magical about this cast.”
“Musically, the show is sweeping. It’s beautiful, rich and lush,” says Minyard. “And the show is absolutely relevant. It’s unfathomable that we still have the racial tensions we do.”
For Seward, Coalhouse is a breakthrough role, his first lead at Actors’ after losing 100 pounds.
“This is the biggest moment of my life so far. Never has anyone seen me as a leading man. When I found out I got it, my mom and I cried together,” he says. “Coalhouse is relevant to me and every other African-American male. I feel he was a loveable man who went wrong in the way he demanded justice. No one really listened to him, and society turned him into a bad guy... It’s a heavy piece. And it shows there’s nothing new under the sun.”
Batts, who went to high school at Miami’s New World School of the Arts before getting her vocal training at the Eastman School of Music and the University of Michigan, is making her musical theater debut at Actors’. She describes the music in Ragtime as “breathtaking” and wants audiences to connect with it deeply.
“I’m hoping people see this not just as a piece of art but as something speaking to the human condition,” she says.
Sessions, who says Floyd Collins at Actors’ was “the seminal event of my acting career and the favorite thing I’ve done,” describes Ragtime as a new American classic. He saw the Broadway original three times, and once played Younger Brother in a regional production. When the Actors’ cast gathered for its first sing-through of the musical, he says, “it felt like the room was rumbling.”
“I love the show so much. It’s so clear and so complex at the same time,” Sessions says. “It has big, big operatic themes — about breaking the mold of women staying in the home, about the position of African-Americans at the turn of the century, about holding America accountable for creating economic opportunities. And it shows that, for better or worse, bigotry will exist in some subset of humanity for time immemorial... Ragtime is meant to spark something. It’s meant to inspire.”
“It’s an ennobling story, a reminder of who we can be and should be,” he says.
If you go
What: ‘Ragtime’ by Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally.
Where: Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables.
When: Previews Wednesday-Thursday, opens Friday; 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (additional 2 p.m. matinee Feb. 4), through Feb. 22.
Cost: $59 Friday-Saturday, $52 other shows ($37 previews).
Information: 305-444-9293 or www.actorsplayhouse.org,