Through Sunday, Dec. 15

Paul Green Theatre, Chapel Hill

The extra bank of seats that PlayMakers Rep added for its theater-in-the-round reconfiguration of Terrence McNally’s Tony-winning musical Ragtime enables the audience to surround—nothing.

Well, next to nothing: Some folding chairs on a pier of particleboard are all that occupy the narrow stage space between the temporary risers and the permanent seats. Wooden stairs bisect the left rows. What look like Plexiglas-enclosed dance-club catwalks stand above and behind two audience banks, requiring chiropractic twists and turns, while a similar isolation booth is placed in an aisle.

Mark Wendland’s set design is conspicuously meager for a work that visits a vivid panorama of locales, including an upper-crust home in New Rochelle, a Harlem nightclub, an Arctic-bound steamship, and a Coney Island boardwalk in 1906. The same goes for Lux Haac’s modern-streetwear costumes and Jordan Ross Weinhold’s thinned-out orchestration, played by an unseen band.

In so thoroughly deconstructing our expectations—and his production—of this famous musical, guest director Zi Alikhan delivers a sharp, unexpected point: In a culture beset by jingoism, racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant nationalism, there are needs far more pressing than a pleasant night of musical theater with all the trimmings.

For better and worse, the deconstruction extends to the casting, and deliberately putting an actor who cannot sing in a musical, as is the case with supporting character Booker T. Washington, goes too far. But I’m all for cutting through the schmaltz of conventional musical theater, and Ragtime frequently hits its targets.

Alikhan’s staging of “Journey On” underscores the hollow sentiment in the tribute that a bigoted Father (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) pays to a passing ship of immigrants. Vaudevillian Evelyn Nesbit, usually depicted as a sexy airhead, gets more justice in her portrayal by Sarah Elizabeth Keyes. And there’s the brilliant, merciless deconstruction of “What a Game,” a showcase of bad manners at a baseball game that’s generally staged as comic relief.

In the scene before it, the disaffected crew of Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Fergie L. Philippe, who performed in the touring production of Hamilton) has enacted fiery vengeance after the police shoot his fiancée, Sarah (a luminous AnnEliza Canning-Skinner), and racists demolish his car. But here, instead of leaving the stage, they linger as a bleacher of boorish baseball fans rags on an opposing team from the stairs. Wearing hoodies and slouched in metal chairs, Walker’s group tonelessly echoes the violent words in a song about America’s pastime—run, hit, strike, kill—before repeating, with horror instead of glee, “Who let this happen?”

Musical theater tends to be enjoyable escapism, a diversion from the demands of the world. Alikhan’s austere production affords little escape. I could criticize the relative joylessness, but a production that shows how joyless much of America was in 1906—and remains in 2019—is probably telling the truth.