American Stage Goes Big with Ragtime in the Park
Were charcuterie boards a “thing” 37 years ago? If so, they certainly weren’t served when American Stage first started producing outdoor theatre shows at Demen’s Landing Park in 1986. Back then, American Stage park shows were much smaller-scale productions, but this April, organizers expect an estimated 17,000 people – and yes, charcuterie boards.
On April 12, Demen’s Landing will come alive for opening night of Ragtime – the Musical. It’s the St. Pete theatre company’s largest park show yet, featuring 24 actors and a nine-piece live band for a two-and-a-half-hour musical that famously tells the story of three ethnic groups surviving (and sometimes thriving, though mostly not) in New York City during the turn of the century.
It’s a song-and-dance production that’s already on a massive-scale, and American Stage must bring it to life not in a theatre, but in the Florida wilderness. Well, OK. The park.
At the helm of the production, director Erica Sutherlin has high hopes for the show. She’s returning to direct Ragtimeafter successfully directing Dutchman last year as the first Black female director at American Stage.
“Who doesn’t like a great night out in a park? Food, music, friends, lawn chairs, blankets, togetherness – like a melting pot, all coming together to share an intimate, uniquely ‘theirs’ type of moment under the stars,” said Sutherlin. “Hopefully, it will be with a slight breeze.”
Sutherlin, along with her trusty design team – including theatre names such as costume designer Jordan Jeffers, set designer Teresa L. Williams, and sound designer Joseph Lamar – will be responsible for a copious amount of scene changes, choreography, and storytelling.
That includes feats such as building an entire set car on stage and a giant deconstructed Statue of Liberty.
“I know there’s a lot of talk about the relevance of this story, but if we really look at America, the melting pot, this story is timeless through our diverse lens. At least, that’s what I’m hoping to convey,” Sutherlin said. “My plan is to take liberties that may be uncomfortable for some and liberating for others.”
American Stage has not been immune to the effect the pandemic on the arts world. Things are picking up, but Mainstage ticket sales are not where they were pre-pandemic. Park shows, however, are another story. Along with development in the bay area, the size and nature of the show has exploded in the last three decades, and Ragtime has the potential to reach their biggest audience to date.
After a two-year hiatus, the theatre company brought back its park shows with Footloose in 2022. According to Steve Mountain, longtime box office manager at American Stage, Footloose claims the title of the second highest money-making park show. Number one? Mamma Mia! in 2019. American Stage hopes Ragtime will surpass it.
“Park attendance will vary from year to year, based on the show and the weather. Basic range would be around 16,000 to 19,000,” Mountain said. “If we can ever get a year with no rain, 20,000 would not be out of the question.”
Organizers remain hopeful; Ragtime ticket pre-sales have been good.
“When we consider visibility, our park production is the largest and widest-reaching programming,” said Patrick A. Jackson, associate artistic producer with the theatre company. “There is an excitement around coming together, outdoors, with an experience that is essentially a rock concert for theatre.”
What to Expect this Year
When American Stage first began tackling the park in the ‘80s, the emerging theatre company was only doing Shakespeare adaptions, and still working out the kinks. In the nearly four decades since, things have changed. This year, in addition to the charcuterie boards, refreshments will include kombucha, seltzers, snacks, and a special just-for-the-park-show beer from Green Bench Brewing: Gettin’ Ready Rye. Get it? Guests should also bring a blanket and/or low chairs (or you can rent a premium blanket).
Saturday, April 23 will be Pride Night in the Park, featuring a live drag show pre-Ragtime, and on Thursday, April 30, guests can bring their dog to the party for “Wagtime” in the park. Ragtime – the Musical runs April 12 through May 14. Doors open at 6 p.m.; show starts at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Tickets are $25-45 at americanstage.org/shows/ragtime