In the first few minutes of this mesmerizing musical, three different worlds occupy the stage. One is a rich, white society. The second is a vibrant, secretive black culture. And the third is a desperate, yearning immigrant throng, full of wild hope and quiet fear.
Over the next 2 1/2 hours, we watch, enthralled, as these worlds collide and collapse, merge and separate, spinning in the awesome, terrifying chaos of history.
Near the start of the novel on which the show is based, E.L. Doctorow writes of the early years of this century, in which the action unfolds: "There seemed to be no entertainment that did not involve great swarms of people."
The musical takes the hint. It is a swarming entertainment packed with people and stories. It teems with men, women and children in perpetual motion. And this is more than a way of filling the stage with color and movement. The essence of its originality is its boldness and stunning power.
The big problem of "Ragtime," which the movie version never managed to solve, is that it is not a single narrative, but a tapestry of factual and fictional stories. There is the comfortable WASP world of Father and Mother. There is the tragic destiny of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a black musician driven to extremes by racism and injustice. And there is the struggle of the new arrivals, the Latvian Jew Tateh and his nameless daughter.
Around them, there are the human emblems of the age Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, the scandalous showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, magician Harry Houdini, the black leader Booker T. Washington. In the novel this is held together by Doctorow's masterful prose. Without it, how can this vast kaleidoscope become a coherent picture?
Some of the answers that Terrence McNally provides in his brilliant book are obvious. He cuts out both fictional and factual characters. He splices counter-pointed moments such as Father's departure for the North Pole and Tateh's arrival in America to create strong, tense, stage images.
But his most important solutions are brave and radical. He plays with time, breaking the barrier between past and present. He doesn't try to create a straight line through the story. He understands that it is about the birth of modern life and big cities and he goes with the logic of the street chance meetings, unlikely juxtapositions, zigzags. And he ties it all together with the one constant fact of modern urban life: the shifting, inescapable masses.
Such boldness is triumphantly vindicated in the staging by Graciela Daniele and Frank Galati. On Eugene Lee's breathtaking set, private lives and public destinies, epic sweep and intimate moments are shuffled with the skill of an old card shark. We are carried along, lost in the crowd, going with the flow.
One result of this constant, fluid motion is that Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' songs have to carry a load of information for the audience, which makes for some functional music and murky lyrics. But there are also big, stirring choral numbers and some gorgeous melodies for the great voices of Marin Mazzie as Mother and Audra McDonald as Coalhouse's lover, Sarah. Even without a memorable anthem, Brian Stokes Mitchell's Coalhouse has a steely, compelling presence.
In the end, his story of injustice and anger emerges from the mass of images to demand our attention. For "Ragtime" is not just a thrillingly entertaining spectacle. It is a tough and truthful parable for our own times. It hums to the tune of history, but beats with the living pulse of contemporary America.
Wow! The new musical "Ragtime" is not simply a colossal hit, it is a fantastic machine for a colossal hit, firing on all cylinders like gangbusters.
You might have thought it couldn't have been done in this day and age - a totally (well, totally enough) successful, traditional all-American Broadway musical.
Well, it has been done. "Ragtime" last night swept into the new and splendid Ford Center for the Performing Arts like a tidal wave - unstoppable, irresistible.
Who cares if in an odd way it seems closer to Rodgers & Hammerstein than to Stephen Sondheim? "Ragtime" has the Broadway belt and (at last we can say it again with some geographical correctness) the 42nd Street glitz. And when I said "traditional musical" I never meant to suggest that "Ragtime" is unadventurous or unimaginative.
On the contrary, little could be more theatrically risky than the very concept of its producer, Garth Drabinsky, to make a musical from E.L. Doctorow's epic but diffuse New York novel of this nation's watershed years during the first two decades of the century.
Did our American century really start to the sound of a different drummer, or rather a strident stride piano, whose syncopated, broken-backed rhythms virtually personified a new age of change and diversity?
This in essence is the bold symbolic subtext of Doctorow's panoramic view of a nation in motion, expressed in his novel and so faithfully caught by this musical based on it.
Fascinatingly, the evening offers an entirely workable double standard. Thematically and theatrically, it is excitingly contemporary, from its literary sophistication and social awareness, to its computer-controlled staging. Yet, musically, it remains cozily old-fashioned, even when mightily effective.
When I first saw "Ragtime" at its Toronto out-of-town premiere rather more than a year ago, it needed a lot of work, much in terms of fine-tuning. This has been largely accomplished - the second act is still weaker than the first, but it doesn't drag as it did in Toronto - and the performances have filled out with time and experience.
Seen as strands of the national tapestry is the interweaving tale of three families, but the key motivating incident of "Ragtime" is a thin anecdote of racial insult and injustice.
This, which Doctorow cleverly amplified from Heinrich von Kleist's famous 1808 novella, "Michael Kohlhaas," reveals the search for respect of the hero, black ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr., which spirals up - with more fancy than likelihood - into a national riot.
Terrence McNally has done a thrilling job in getting to the unbalanced heart of Doctorow's mind-catching novel - with all its bombast and poetry, vision and melodrama - and making it viable on stage and accessible to music.
Lynn Ahrens' lyrics also play fair by Doctorow's personal voice, and Stephen Flaherty's score while almost electrically eclectic - from primarily Joplinesque rags to a call for justice that might have emerged from the barricades of "Les Miz" - is never less than tuneful.
Apart from McNally, and, of course, Doctorow, the real creative heroes of the night are the director Frank Galati (who has achieved miracles in glueing the thing together), the choreographer Graciele Daniele (whose seamless musical staging is delicate, vibrant and amazing) and the whole brilliantly evocative design team led by Eugene Lee and costume designer Santo Loquasto.
"Ragtime" is indeed the family portrait of the century - or at least the first 15 years of it. And against this moving picture of old-time New York is placed the performances - each, as in the novel, a seemingly perfectly calculated vignette of person or historical personage.
As in any group photograph, individuals stand out by placement, sometimes the imprint of personality, sometimes both coming together. "Ragtime" has a great cast from tip to toe, from top to bottom.
Brian Stokes Mitchell as Coalhouse is so charismatic critics should wish they'd never used the word before, that wondrous actress/singer Audra McDonald is truly heartbreaking as his wife, Peter Friedman and Marin Mazzie, as two oddly assorted harbingers of the new age, are both perfect, as is Mark Jacoby, as the emblematic stuffy, eternally middle-aged, white Anglo-Saxon male, destined to be that same age's joke, villain, victim and survivior.
Yet it is the musical's overall triumph that the smaller roles are as carefully envisaged, cast and executed as those basically propelling the action. Steven Sutcliffe is extraordinary as a young liberal revolutionary, Judy Kaye beautifully brings to life one of the show's many historical figures, labor leader Emma Goldman, and a winsome Lynnette Perry does the same for that "girl on the red velvet swing," Evelyn Nesbit.
Look where you like - it's a terrific cast. And it's a show that takes the heartbeat of a legendary New York, half-real, half-hoped and totally imagined, and puts it in a bottle. What, you can't put a heartbeat in a bottle? Go and see for yourself. No one in their right minds will want to miss this.
Blessed with beauty, ambition, a smashing wardrobe and a social conscience, "Ragtime" would seem to be the kind of musical that brings Broadway audiences to their knees in adoration. Then why does this $10 million show, which opened last night at the new Ford Center for the Performing Arts, feel so utterly resistible?
Sitting through this heavily publicized adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel about turn-of-the-century growing pains is like meeting someone on the basis of a promising lonely-hearts ad. It's not that your date doesn't match the adjectives from the glamorous self-description. But face to face, you discover there's just no chemistry.
There is much to admire in "Ragtime," from its images of hand-tinted daguerreotypes brought to exquisite life to the electric presence of its leading man, Brian Stokes Mitchell, as the black revolutionary Coalhouse Walker. But there is finally little to fall in love with.
Conceived to inaugurate the Ford Center by Livent Inc., the Canadian production company that brought "Show Boat" back to Broadway several years ago, the production has a correspondingly commemorative quality. A panoramic look at the beginning of this century from the perspective of its end, it often has the feeling of an instructional diorama in a pavilion at a world's fair.
And just as the handsome new building that houses "Ragtime" is a refabrication of two theaters from the era in which the show is set, the Lyric and the Apollo, the musical is a carefully constructed pastiche of period charm and contemporary mechanical efficiency. The result itself is less a celebration of theater per se than of theatrical technology and its smooth manipulation.
On one level, this isn't inappropriate to Doctorow's landmark novel, a sleek, seductive narrative that mixed real-life historical figures with fictional characters to paint a canvas of a country dizzy from innovations in transportation and industry and the attendant social consequences.
Overseen with a close attention to detail by Garth Drabinsky, its David O. Selznick-like producer, "Ragtime" not only comments on this infatuation with the idea of progress; it also glories in it, giving off the equivalent of a self-delighted chuckle any time it sends a plane, train or automobile onto the stage. And when a character says he would like to write the name of his beloved in fireworks, sure enough, that name materializes before us in multicolored lights.
This all adds up to a spectacular feast for the eyes. And as the runaway success of "The Lion King," the musical produced by Livent's rival in show-off showmanship, Walt Disney, demonstrates, visual brilliance can in itself be enough to satisfy a Times Square audience. But "The Lion King" is stamped with the idiosyncratic vision of one person, Julie Taymor, its director and designer.
"Ragtime," on the other hand, has the aura of something assembled by corporate committee, and when an actor playing Henry Ford shows up to extol the miracle of the assembly line, you may draw uncomfortable parallels. The skills and virtues of "Ragtime," which opened in Toronto more than a year ago and is currently playing in Los Angeles, are many and undeniable; but a distinctive human personality is not among them.
This is all the more frustrating given the impressive squad of individual talents Drabinsky has assembled. The show's book is by Terrence McNally ("Master Class," "Love, Valour, Compassion!"); the music and lyrics are by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens ("Once on This Island"); Broadway veteran Graciela Daniele is responsible for the "musical staging" (a phrase, in this instance, wisely substituted for "choreography"), and the director is Frank Galati, who showed a strong feeling for socially conscious Americana in his production of "The Grapes of Wrath."
Add to this mix the first-rate artists Eugene Lee (the set designer behind Drabinksy's "Show Boat"), Santo Loquasto (costumes) and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (lighting), all at the top of their form.
Indeed, the combined achievement of these creators is, on some levels, an astonishment. Unlike Milos Forman's 1981 film adaptation of Doctorow's book, this version has a seamless, fluid quality and also keeps the varied and intricate aspects of the plot helpfully clear. And both McNally's libretto and Flaherty's score often evoke the rhythms of the Scott Joplin-esque rag music used as a metaphor for changing times.
The show's dazzling opening number, while slightly less effective than in its more supple incarnation in its Toronto opening, would seem to herald the advent of an all-American musical to join the ranks of "Oklahoma!" and "Show Boat." But as "Ragtime" points out again and again, promises are not always realized.
The production begins, as the novel does, with beguiling quietness. A door opens and a young boy (Alex Strange) is seen in a corridor of light; a single rag melody line, the matrix of all the music to follow, is heard on a piano. A stereopticon image of an upper-middle-class assembly in their Sunday best dissolves enchantingly to reveal the real people behind it.
Within the next 10 minutes, all the essential themes of "Ragtime" are established with theatrical eloquence. The genteel rhythms of the opening melody are disrupted with jagged jazz syncopations and Jewish folk inflections: The shifts herald the arrival of two other groups of performers representing the black underclass and the newly arrived swarm of immigrants in America. The ensemble's uneasy dance and the increasingly dissonant music behind it become an image of a melting pot whose ingredients remain unassimilated.
The characters who break out of the dance to introduce themselves, in the third person, represent three separate story lines that will intersect and mesh. There's the generic white New Rochelle family of Father (Mark Jacoby), Mother (Marin Mazzie) and their son (Strange), plus Mother's restless Younger Brother (Steven Sutcliffe).
Then there's Coalhouse Walker (Mitchell), the charismatic jazz pianist, and his lover, Sarah (Audra McDonald), who with her illegitimate child is taken in by Mother. The third story line belongs to Tateh (Peter Friedman), a Jewish immigrant who, inspired by hopes of a better life for his daughter (Lea Michele), turns a knack for creating animated silhouette picture books into a career as a movie director. Also on hand are such iconic figures as Ford (Larry Dagget), Emma Goldman (Judy Kaye), Harry Houdini (Jim Corti) and Evelyn Nesbit (Lynnette Perry).
The frame for the work's momentous events, which reach a climax when Walker seeks revenge after his car is destroyed by white racists, is Lee's wonderful evocation of the old Pennsylvania Station. It's a fitting context for a work about the velocity of change, a mood enhanced by the liquid segues from one scene into another and the ever-shifting, emotionally coded colors that drench the stage's back screen.
Yet there's a bafflingly static feeling abroad, a sense that the show never really progresses from its allegorical opening but merely embroiders upon it. The show retains Doctorow's omniscient, distanced quality. But it doesn't have a glimmer of the novel's wit and impudence. What is substituted is the earnestness of a civics lesson, and it is fitting that the show's advertising is built around the watchwords "Hope," "Dreams" and "Optimism." This is a far cry from a character's observation in the book that "the world composed and recomposed itself constantly in an endless process of dissatisfaction."
Now, dissatisfaction is not an emotion to make you sing and dance. And the show's inspirational thrust might have been more affecting if the characters were something more than the Identikit personages they mostly are here. Ms. Mazzie's Mother is a wooden proto-feminist; Jacoby's Father a stiff emblem of a man whose time has passed. And Sutcliffe's Younger Brother is less a darkly obsessed radical in the making who fixates first on Nesbit and then on Walker than a sunny idealist with a Boy Scout demeanor.
Friedman, who mostly resists the understandable temptation to play Tateh as Tevye in "Fiddler," fares somewhat better, as does Ms. Kaye's brusque, rabble-rousing Goldman. Ms. McDonald finds more humanity than would have seemed possible in her sketchbook part, and, as always, she sings gloriously. And Mitchell emerges as a sexy, charismatic star who finds a sinuous dignity in the persecuted Coalhouse, although one wishes the show had played more with the character's combustible rage instead of turning him into a saintly martyr.
Ms. Ahrens is an often elegant lyricist, and there is ingenuity in the way Flaherty plays with traditional musical forms. But the show soon turns into a numbing succession of open-throated anthems, songs with titles like "Wheels of a Dream" and "Make Them Hear You." And with Ms. Daniele's tableau-vivantlike choreography, which offers scant opportunities for energetic dancing, everything starts to seem like a long, secular revival meeting.
Despite its bemused, ironic tone, what came across most piercingly in Doctorow's novel was the vertigo of a world whose bottom was falling out, of the exciting danger in the shaking of class and sexual mores. But this sanitized "Ragtime" has no place for sex, even turning Nesbit from a disturbing, erotic presence into a harmless Marilyn Monroe-like cartoon.
It seems significant that Sigmund Freud, one of the characters in the novel, has been eliminated from the musical. This is a show without a subconscious, a parade that never strays from the well-paved surface of Main Street.
Like a player piano, "Ragtime" has all its notes in their proper places, nothing left to chance or, for that matter, nuance. Livent's lavish, impeccably designed $10 million production sets E.L. Doctorow's brilliant 1975 novel to a syncopated beat, deftly weaving together the various storylines through which Doctorow elegantly evoked the formative years of this century. Since its debut in Toronto more than a year ago, and through a subsequent production in Los Angeles, "Ragtime" has been tuned and tinkered with, with a few loose ends tied up, some characters sharpened and performances strengthened. The show's assets -- chief among them its tasteful, pretty look, fine singing and an opening number that virtually defines musical theater concision and artistry -- remain crisp and appealing, just the sort of high-toned attributes that will keep the comfortable seats of Livent's beautiful Ford Center for the Performing Arts filled for a long time to come.
Whether the three-hour show can keep patrons from fidgeting in those roomy seats is another matter. Despite the tinkering, the three-hour "Ragtime" remains a long-winded affair, bloated and more than a little self-important. If box office hasn't been as strong in L.A. (or Toronto, where the New York production began), surely this is the main reason: "Ragtime," for all of its skill and polish, is a musical easier to admire than love, its plentiful, rich characters more often than not seeming as distant as the era they inhabit.
Granted, book writer Terrence McNally had a difficult job. For all of its haunting lyricism, Doctorow's novel about American society -- or, rather, societies -- at the turn of the century (the last one) is almost entirely descriptive, with little of the dialogue demanded by the stage. The novel's great achievement, like the music for which it's named, lies in its deceptively airy style, a peerless melding of surface lightness and complex construction. The intricate plot, mingling fictional characters with such historical figures as Harry Houdini, Henry Ford and Booker T. Washington, unspooled with the easy grace of a Scott Joplin melody.
That quality is gloriously rendered in the musical's opening number. Director Frank Galati and choreographer Graciela Daniele succinctly bring together the three elements of the story -- the WASPy inhabitants of New Rochelle, the ragtag Eastern European immigrants of the Lower East Side and the artistically percolating blacks of Harlem just before that neighborhood's creative Renaissance. In a dance set to the lovely (and very catchy) title song (music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens), the three groups move in fluid motion around the sparsely decorated stage, gradually merging in a jubilant melting pot only to segregate by the number's end. The show's themes, musically and otherwise, are established with clarity and, yes, beauty.
A few slow points notwithstanding, the rest of Act I maintains, or comes close, to the promise of that introduction. If "Ragtime" has an episodic feel, with its succession of characters and tableaux dominating the stage one after another, the structure is excusable in the first act as the panoply of personalities are introduced and the plotlines delineated. We meet the privileged, insular New Rochelle family as stern, unloving Father (Mark Jacoby) embarks on Admiral Peary's Arctic expedition, with compassionate, quietly love-starved Mother (Marin Mazzie) singing her farewell in the soaring ballad "Goodbye, My Love."
Coming into New York harbor is Latvian immigrant Tateh (Peter Friedman), a Jewish widower who dreams of a better life for himself and his young daughter (Lea Michele). A drawer of silhouettes, the hopeful Tateh envisions neither the cruelties of New York tenements, nor the twist of fate that ultimately transforms his life into the embodiment of the American Dream.
To illustrate the American Nightmare of racism, "Ragtime" tells the story of Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Brian Stokes Mitchell, in one of the show's standout performances -- the other belongs to Friedman), the (fictional) ragtime pianist who leaves Harlem to track down his beloved Sarah (Audra McDonald), a distraught young servant who, after giving birth out of wedlock to the charming Coalhouse's baby, buries the infant in Mother's manicured New Rochelle garden.
Kindhearted Mother rescues both the baby and Sarah, providing refuge and understanding. Mother's Younger Brother (Steven Sutcliffe) wholeheartedly approves, his latent radicalism coming to the fore, while Mother's Little Boy (Alex Strange) is fascinated by the developments.
Mother even takes pity when Coalhouse comes courting, opening her home to him Sunday after Sunday until the unforgiving Sarah relents and reunites with the once straying, now repentant Coalhouse.
Not everyone in New Rochelle is quite so tolerant, of course. Father, upon returning from the North Pole, is stunned to find his very proper household turned upside down. In yet another fine example of the tuner's ragtime-as-metaphor for cultural change, Father sings of his bafflement over this "New Music." Meanwhile, some local toughs, led by Fire Chief Willie Conklin (David Mucci), display their racism by destroying Coalhouse's much-prized Model T, a vicious act that sets in motion a series of incidents that prove fatal to Sarah.
"Ragtime's" canvas also includes such real-life figures as Houdini (Jim Corti), here presented as an immigrant-made-good, and Evelyn Nesbit (Lynnette Perry), the modestly talented vaudeville starlet who rose to brief fame after her blueblood, and very jealous, husband murdered famed architect Stanford White. Ford (Larry Daggett) and J.P. Morgan (Mike O'Carroll) make appearances as prototypical capitalists of the Gilded Age, Emma Goldman (Judy Kaye) as the ranting embodiment of socialist disquiet and Booker T. Washington (Tommy Hollis) as the voice of reasoned, however accommodating, black struggle.
Even as the historical figures interact with the fictional characters -- all of the lives intersect in surprising ways -- they are reduced to icon status, each a symbol of some strain of American history. The device might have been a theatrical necessity (something from the novel had to go), but the one-note personalities offer little by way of emotional depth. And frankly, the ranting of Goldman and righteousness of Washington become very tiresome.
While the first part of "Ragtime" is a skillful blend of the various storylines, the musical ultimately focuses on the Coalhouse plot, leading to a police standoff that should be, quite literally, a dynamite climax. Unfortunately, by the time "Ragtime" reaches the end of its long fuse, after a repetitive second act that often manages to be both overwrought and dull, the musical has very nearly worn out its welcome. With one or two exceptions (Coalhouse, perhaps Mother), none of the characters has won our hearts: Sarah's a bit of a bore, Father's ludicrously stiff and Younger Brother is more whiny than fervent.
Some of the character problems lie in the performances. Sutcliffe, as Younger Brother, sings and speaks with a permanent sob in his voice, and McDonald, though a beautiful singer, overplays Sarah's teary melodrama. Jacoby (as Father) and Strange (as Little Boy) employ an old-fashioned staginess that, while arguably appropriate for this resolutely old-fashioned musical, is something less than endearing.
Warmer performances come from Mazzie, as Mother, Perry (who, as Nesbit, seems to have deepened and smartened her character since Toronto) and, especially, Friedman as Tateh. Even with a mostly silent, all-but-vacant little girl (a decided drawback in a father-daughter storyline), Friedman's Tateh is both convincing and poignant in his rags-to-riches conversion.
Friedman also provides the musical with some welcome humor, the absence of which is perhaps the only quibble to be made with Mitchell's performance as Coalhouse. Charming and strong-voiced, Mitchell carries much of the weighty second act on his shoulders.
That act two fails to live up to the promise of act one says less about Mitchell than it does about the pleasant Flaherty/Ahrens score, which becomes ballad-heavy and crescendo-laden after intermission, and the heavily operatic direction of Galati. Not seeming to trust Eugene Lee's gorgeously spare sets, the equally lovely Jules Fisher/Peggy Eisenhauer lighting design and Santo Loquasto's button-perfect period costumes, "Ragtime" all but begs us to be moved, trying so hard that it loses touch with its initial charms. By the finale, the musical generates nostalgia as much for its own earlier, considerable high points as it does for the bygone era of its setting.