ST. PETERSBURG — On a Tuesday night after sunset, during one of the final rehearsals for American Stage’s outdoor production of “Ragtime — The Musical,” director Erica Sutherlin was finalizing the lighting for 10 pages of the show’s script.
Sutherlin and the show’s creative team sat at a table full of screens, some showing the stage’s layout, others showing inspiration photos for characters’ hairstyles. On stage, the full cast came out to run through a number.
A nine-piece band played on the stage behind the actors, hidden by a screen called a scrim. Musical director Latoya McCormick watched and listened. As they waited for lighting to be set, the cast buzzed with anticipation for opening night, the culmination of a monthlong rehearsal process in which they practiced six days a week for eight hours each day.
When Sutherlin told them they’d take it from the top after a break, they cheered.
“Ragtime,” a Tony-winning show that debuted on Broadway in 1998 and tells the story of three American families in the early 1900s, is this year’s American Stage in the Park production, an annual tradition that welcomes thousands of people to the St. Petersburg waterfront. With serious themes about race and class, “Ragtime” reflects a shift in tone from the past several years of park shows, which were marked by comedy and broad musical numbers. (Fair warning, if you’re thinking of bringing kids to the show: It deals with mature themes, especially racism, and features adult language including racial slurs.)
It’s notable for another reason: “Ragtime” has the largest cast of any American Stage in the Park production, with 21 actors on the stage.
The show was programmed by American Stage’s former producing artistic director, Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, who was originally supposed to direct but left the company in 2022.
Sutherlin, who is American Stage’s director of community engagement and most recently directed “Dutchman” for the company, doesn’t typically direct musicals. But she was honored when American Stage asked her to helm such a large show.
“Musicals come to me,” she said. “I don’t go looking for them.”
One of her biggest challenges was whittling down the 50 or 60 characters in the original script to a cast of 21. With her creative team — composed of mostly women — Sutherlin spent a lot of time between December and January figuring out how to fill all of the roles with the smaller cast. Assistant director Alexa Perez kept a document of the characters and the cast members to see who could play which character during which scene.
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“So this is all theoretical at the top,” Sutherlin said. “We’re just putting down what we think will work and then we have to lay it on the bodies and then we go, that doesn’t work.”
Sutherlin said she fell in love with “Ragtime” during the creative process, and it’s easy to see why.
This is one of the strongest park productions to date, with a powerful story line that acknowledges a stark reality: More than 100 years after the show takes place, many of the issues it explores around race, gender roles and patriotism are still relevant.
Vocal powerhouses Dante Murray (as Coalhouse Walker) and Leah Stewart (as his love interest Sarah) give heart-wrenching performances. Billy Goldstein plays Jewish immigrant Tateh with empathy and power. As Mother, Sarah Middough is tender, while Martin Powers embodies Little Boy with impish glee. Comic relief comes from Laura McKenna as Evelyn Nesbit, the lively turn-of the-century “it girl.”
Despite the cast’s precision choreography, most of them aren’t dancers. So choreographer Heather Beal met them where they were, Sutherlin said, but still pushed them.
The turn-of-the-century costuming originally included 300 custom pieces, but Sutherlin pared that down to make it more manageable. She focused on a cream and white color palette to which pops of color could be added, like for Nesbit’s wardrobe.
“I love to take my central characters and start them in one color, or one hue of a certain color, and then transition them as they either grow and learn or spiral down, and track that using color,” she said.
For the set, Sutherlin conceptualized a deconstructed Statue of Liberty.
That started back in late 2022, when Sutherlin met with the creative team and brought a “lookbook” of ideas for the set. She was inspired by an immersive art exhibition by French artist JR at the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital in New York City, where large-scale photographs of immigrants adorn the walls.
Scenic designer Teresa Williams took Sutherlin’s ideas and came back with her own. The two reached what Sutherlin called a “happy medium” of compromises: Images of people are on the set’s facade.
Once the design was in place, a team of people started constructing the set in late February, then moved into the park to finish it.
“I wanted the set to feel big, and be big, so that the characters felt small and so that the audience kind of felt small, so that we’re always questioning this idea of the American dream,” Sutherlin said. “All of us collectively. Is it real? Is it sustainable? Has it changed? And then what are we doing?”
What to know if you go
American Stage in the Park’s “Ragtime” opens April 12 and runs through May 14. Performances happen at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $23 general blanket and general chairs, $28 premium blanket, $45 reserved chairs. 727-823-7529. americanstage.org.
“Ragtime” was written by Terrence McNally, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. McNally, who died in 2020 from COVID-19 complications, lived in Treasure Island as a child. On May 7, the dedication of a plaque created in his honor by Equality Florida, American Stage and several private donors will happen at his home at 27 80th Ave. “Ragtime” cast member Dante Murray, who plays Coalhouse Walker, will perform “Make Them Hear You” at noon at the event.