Director and choreographer Luis Salgado (center) conducts rehearsals for RAGTIME, the musical on stage now at Axelrod Performing Arts Center. (photo courtesy of Hahn Films)

(Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park, NJ, March 8 2018)

It could be the excitement generated by  productions like a “Jekyll & Hyde” that featured dynamic Shore vocalist Remember Jones in the title role(s). It could be the news that  they’ve secured the services of Andrea McArdle, the original Broadway “Annie,”  to play the heinous Miss Hannigan in a November production. Whatever the source of the buzz, there’s no denying that Andrew De Prisco and his Axelrod Performing Arts Center team have really upped the ante on a bid to take their place among the state’s vanguard venues for musical theater.

It was just about a year ago that artistic director De Prisco and the APAC audience got their first look at the work of an exciting guest artist — dancer, director and choreographer Luis Salgado. The young Broadway veteran (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “On Your Feet”) brought his skills to the Ocean Township stage with a local debut production of a show that he himself had been a part of  in its original cast — Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” — and the question on everyone’s mind was, what can this partnership do for an encore?

Beginning this past weekend, and continuing over three weekends, the answer can be heard in the syncopated rhythms of “Ragtime The Musical,” the 1996 show that found Tony winning music in an unlikely source: the sprawling E.L. Doctorow novel of middle class privilege, immigrant dreams,  racially fueled tensions, society scandals, and emerging new sounds in and around the New York of the early 20th century. Boasting a book by the celebrated playwright Terrence McNally, the show also claims a significant connection to the greater Asbury Park area — the lyrics of Lynn Ahrens, the 1966 Neptune High School graduate whose  collaboration here with composer Stephen Flaherty won the team a Tony for the score.

Having kicked around various “crazy new ideas for familiar shows,” Salgado found that he and  De Prisco shared “a mutual attraction to ‘Ragtime’…it’s an epic story that actually speaks to what’s happening in the country today.”

“It’s about how we listen to each other; how we accept each other,” the director explains. “Everybody wants to be heard, and ‘Ragtime’ illustrates how our society creates the UN-heard.”

Taking a conceptual approach that favors the 1975 novel over any previous stagings of the musical (or the 1981 film based on the book), Salgado has assembled a production that employs a young cast of NY and NJ players — and whose set centers around three tower-like structures that do duty for more than 30 different compositions. It’s a new way of framing the show’s various interlocking storylines; the most prominent of which is that of Coalhouse Walker Jr. (played here by Alex Gibbs), a proud young African American musician of game-changing talents, and a man who refuses to stand down when confronted by the forces of a bigoted bureaucracy.

The Harlem of Coalhouse and his lover Sarah (Marion Grey) is a close trip but a far  remove from the New Rochelle home of a nameless upper middle class family whose matriarch’s Younger Brother (Noel Haule-Von Behren) is a seeker of something beyond the stodgy comforts of their sheltered lives. Meanwhile on the Lower East Side, a Jewish immigrant named Tateh (Jacob S. Louccheim) seeks his own fortune in a strange new land.

Mixing dark scenes of death and despair with glimmers of hope and fellowship, the intricate plot intertwines the author’s fictional characters with real figures from that era — including Evelyn Nesbit (Ashley Eder), the chorus girl-socialite at the center of one of the most scandalous murder stories in American history.

Also on hand are activists Emma Goldman (Julie Galorenzo) and Booker T. Washington (Richard Coleman); as well as Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, and other celebs of the day.

At the heart of the show, however, is the music of a still young but fast-growing nation; a soundtrack that encompasses gospel, Eastern European folk music, Sousa-style marches, and the ragtime sounds of an increasingly urbanized black America that was putting its profound stamp on the nation’s culture.

“A song like ‘Make Them Hear You’ could be a universal cry for any culture in the world,” says Salgado. “This show requires a lot of the performers and the audience…we want to give ownership of the work to everyone, and I feel safe and supported working with the Axelrod on this project.”

“I tip my hat to the company for not staying in the comfort zone; not doing it just for the dollar,” explains the director who will conduct a workshop with the sudents of the APAC’s Rising Stars Program in the show’s closing week. “They want to bring art that questions and speaks to the audience…and at the same time, it’s also about inspiring art.”

“Ragtime” continues with performances at 8 p.m. on March 10, 17, 23 and 24; at 3 p.m. on March 11, 18 and 25; with an additional 2 p.m. matinee on March 17. Tickets ($38-$42 adults, $35-$39 seniors) can be reserved by calling 732-531-9106 or visiting axelrodartscenter.com.