The initial swirling syncopation of sound is impossible to resist.
Surely there are not many opening numbers better than the intoxicating first moments of “Ragtime,” the stage version of E.L. Doctorow’s best-selling novel. The show’s themes and characters are introduced lickety-split in a thrilling combination of song, story and movement that goes a long way toward explaining what musical theater is all about.
It also sets the bar very high for what is to follow at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre, where a respectful, recalibrated revival of the musical opened Sunday. If nothing else quite reaches that joyous proclamation of theatricality, so be it. This is a musical that can’t be faulted for its overabundant ambition or its often soaring score even as it sometimes stumbles over its heart-on-sleeve earnestness.
“Ragtime,” with its parade of characters, will never be a small show. Yet director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, whose production was first staged last spring at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, has managed to scale back some, if not all, of its reverential pageantry. She allows the audience to concentrate on individuals in the three distinct groups that march through Doctorow’s massive tale.
The book is a cornucopia of fact and fiction celebrating early 20th-centruy America, a time of change, of social, economic and racial unrest. That uncertainty resonates even stronger today than it did in 1996 when “Ragtime” had its world premiere in Toronto, or in early 1998, when it opened in New York. Real historical figures such as Booker T. Washington, Henry For, Harry Houdini and Emma Goldman interact with Doctorow’s own family creations- whites, blacks, and immigrant Jews.
They include a prosperous Anglo-Saxon household headed by characters with the ominiously archetypal names of Father and Mother; Colehouse Walker Jr., a black ragtime piano player and composer, and Tateh, the immigrant who makes the most astonishing transforamation of all.
Dodge brings them all together in a movelous tiered settling (designed by Derek McLane) that resembles a giant Erector Set climbing to the proscenium arch of the Simon. Its walkways make the action flow with surprising speed. But then it has to. There is a lot of plot in “Ragtime” and playwright Terrence McNally has done a remarkable job in condensing the story without losing sight of the characters.
What made the original so enticing was not so much the lavisness of its setting but the impeccable casting that anchored the show and which made stars out of such performers as Aurdra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie. In this revival, the actors are not quite as accomplished in creating credible portraits even though Dodge has given them more breathing space in which to come alive.
Quentin Earl Darrington’s Coalhouse is vocally impressive yet without the commanding force that the charismatic Mitchell brought to the role of a man who most galvanize his followers to the point of anarchy.
Stephanie Umoh looks lovely but lacks the intensity and the vocal warmth that McDonald exuded as Sarah, the young woman whose child with Coalhouse is raised by Mother. This WASP matriarch, played by Christiane Noll, is the musical’s most fully realized character, changing from dutiful if constricted helpmate to a woman who decides she can never go “Back to Before,” an anthem of female emancipation.
Even Tateh, who is transformed from penniless immigrant to slient-movie mogul, doesn’t have that kind of depth though Robert Petkoff works hard to give the man more than a generic personality.
Yet several of the supporting actors create strongly etched characters including Bobby Steggert as Mother’s volatile, socially conscious Younger Brother; Jonathan Hammond, a robust Houdini; Donna Migliaccio, a no-nonsnese, forceful Emma Goldman, and Christopher Cox as a spunky little boy who narrates much of the story.
But what remains most memorable about “Ragtime” is its score: Stephen Flaherty’s outpouring of melodies, tunes that encompass not only the sounds of the show’s title, but a whole range of musical expression from hymns to cakewalks to a bit of vaudeville razzle-dazzle. One song in particular, the haunting “New Music,” neatly encompasses the ardent relationship between Coalhouse and Sarah and the unraveling of the bond between Mother and Father (an appropriately stuffy Ron Bohmer).
And Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics are equally diverse—from bold pronouncements to more simple homespun revelations, such as an affectionate “Our Children,” delivered by Mother as she bonds with the newly reinvented Tateh.
Their quiet, gentle scene demonstrates what’s best about Dodge’s direction. There’s not a wasted moment in her production, which is a blessing considering the scope of the lengthy story these creators are trying to tell: a new America century getting ready to explode and make its mark on history.
“Ragtime” has lost weight since it was last on Broadway. The judiciously pared-down production that opened Sunday night at the Neil Simon Theater is a sprinting sylph compared to the opulence-bloated show that went under the same name a decade ago.
True, the songs in this musical, adapted from E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel about the reshaping of America in the early 20th century, still suggest anthems from a hymns-for-the-converted Weavers concert, reorchestrated for Broadway belters. Flattening and straightening the kinked currents of history that eddied through Mr. Doctorow’s book, “Ragtime: The Musical” is never going to be described as subtle.
Still, Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s appealingly modest new interpretation, which originated at the Kennedy Center in Washington, often finds within this work’s panoramic sweep an affecting, uneasy human soul largely missing in the 1998 version. That show, created to open the spanking-new Ford Center by the Mike Todd-style producer Garth Drabinsky, was a paean to the latest in theater technology, a sort of World’s Fair for the stage, that featured planes, trains, a full-size Model T and fireworks (to accompany the expression of love).
The Drabinsky “Ragtime” was as infatuated with its own mammoth scale and stagecraft as its early-20th-century characters were with the latest innovations in science. It was lovely to look at and sometimes to listen to, but you felt as if a big, fat dirigible — filled with overdressed partiers and a cargo of heavy messages — had landed on your head.
Such ostentation was perhaps appropriate for the late 20th century, but hardly fitting in the financially anxious days of the early 21st. Despite the vulgar shadow cast by the $50 million “Spider-Man” extravaganza in the making, scheduled to open next year, the trend on Broadway of late has been toward small productions of big musicals, particularly in revivals of Stephen Sondheim shows that put the emphasis on words and music as guides to human ambiguity.
“Ragtime” benefits from this less-is-more approach, but only to a degree. The show is hardly one of Sondheimesque complexity. Terrence McNally’s script and Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’s songs have a way of turning the shifting historical flux of Doctorow’s novel into carefully diagrammed flow charts. Characters who remain mysteries to themselves in the novel are here allowed moments of self-analysis and self-explanation that Dr. Phil might applaud. So to present a bare-bones “Ragtime” courts the danger of revealing how bare them bones are.
Ms. Dodge doesn’t avoid this pitfall. But with a top-drawer design team that includes Derek McLane (set), Santo Loquasto (costumes) and Donald Holder (lighting), she makes it clear that “Ragtime” never needed all that decorative baggage to tell its stories of three families of different ethnic and economic strata.
With a tiered, skeletal set that suggests a majestic phantom railroad station, this “Ragtime” puts the emphasis on people — as makers of history as well as its pawns — instead of what surrounds them. (The Model T, which is central to the story, appears here, too, but as a 3-D outline of a car.)
Warmly acted and agreeably sung, this “Ragtime” travels light. And if it still sometimes feels like an animated history lesson, delivered by a liberal but square teacher a shade too eager to make the past come alive, the show now neither drags nor sags under its big themes.
Ms. Dodge would appear to have taken her cue from a description in Mr. Doctorow’s novel about the silhouette portraits created by Tateh (Robert Petkoff), a newly arrived Jewish immigrant. “With his scissors,” Mr. Doctorow wrote, “he suggested not merely outlines but texture, moods, character, despair.”
The expressive silhouette is this production’s dominant leitmotif. It is used most literally by Ms. Dodge in her positioning of her large cast (of several dozen) as back-lighted, featureless outlines that slowly assume detail. Such tableau making is a well-worn trick in theater (and film) but appropriate to a work in which people are trapped in the visions of others, in seemingly fixed stereotypes.
Chief among those trying to break through these prisons of perceptions are three families. Father (Ron Bohmer), Mother (Christiane Noll), Mother’s Younger Brother (Bobby Steggert) and the Little Boy (Christopher Cox) find their sunny, complacent life in New Rochelle, N.Y., shadowed by the discovery of an abandoned black baby in their garden. That’s the offspring of Sarah (Stephanie Umoh), a young cleaning woman, and a Harlem piano player, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Quentin Earl Darrington), whose presence will disrupt Father and his family in far-reaching ways they could never have anticipated.
The third arterial story follows Tateh and his daughter (Sarah Rosenthal) and the odyssey that takes them from the squalor of Lower East Side tenements to the heights of the nascent film industry. On the sidelines — kibitzing, annotating and occasionally redirecting the plot — are quick-sketch historical figures like the showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (Savannah Wise), the escape artist Harry Houdini (Jonathan Hammond), the radical Emma Goldman (a rousing Donna Migliaccio) and the captains of industry J. P. Morgan (Michael X. Martin) and Henry Ford (Aaron Galligan-Stierle).
Whatever its flaws, Mr. McNally’s script is a marvel of compression and clarity. Ms. Dodge enhances these attributes (sometimes a bit too baldly) by arranging cast members on different levels of the set, allowing us to compare and assess each group, while waiting for their inevitable intersections. The most obviously dramatic story is that of Coalhouse, who is transformed from gentlemanly musician to avenging revolutionary.
In 1998 Coalhouse and Sarah were played by the rising stars Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald, powerhouse singers of natural charisma who dominated the show. Mr. Darrington and Ms. Umoh don’t have that commanding presence, though they’re more than adequate. Our attention shifts instead, with rewarding results, to characters I had previously regarded as underdrawn, those of Mother, Brother and Tateh.
Ms. Noll, Mr. Steggert and Mr. Petkoff bring specific shadings of ambivalence to their roles that put bruisable flesh on silhouette figures and suggest the excited bewilderment of people looking for toeholds in a shifting landscape. Ms. Noll and Mr. Petkoff’s relationship, that of bizarrely attracted opposites, becomes the show’s most persuasive emotional through line. And Mr. Steggert, as a tentative rebel in search of a cause, provides a hot center of real pain.
Mr. Flaherty’s score, which weaves variations on the rag form throughout, gives the show a natural momentum and unity, though it occasionally veers into annoying repetitiveness. I’m still not bowled over by the full-throated, teary songs about hope and loss and the future that awaits us, with titles like “The Wheels of a Dream” and “Make Them Hear You.”
On the other hand, I have new respect for Mr. Flaherty’s use of ragtime as the aural embodiment of something fresh and unsettling in a stale and settled world. (James Moore is the sensitive music director.) “New Music,” a song in the first act in which Coalhouse first plays for Father’s family, allows you to hear each of the main characters responding in wondering counterpoint.
It’s a lovely, quiet moment, filled with expectation, apprehension and a sweet confusion. And it suggests that there were always moments of piercing sensitivity within “Ragtime.” Ms. Dodge’s production doesn’t disguise this work’s hearty preachiness, but it elicits glimmers of delicate beauty that got lost in the fireworks the first time around.
The musical Ragtime is based on E.L. Doctorow's sprawling historical novel, which offered food for thought by tracing the dawn of 20th-century American society through real and imagined characters.
But those who plan to see the theatrical version, now in revival (***½ out of four) at the Neil Simon Theatre, are advised to put away their thinking caps and bring their hankies. As a work of social commentary, Ragtime, introduced on Broadway in 1998, is hokey and pedantic, much like that other, plodding musical adaptation of historical fiction, Les Misèrables.
Ragtime's unabashed sentimentality is more compelling, though, thanks to the relative wit and grace of its creators. The score, composed by Stephen Flaherty with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, is hardly A-list, but the songs are well-crafted and on occasion are genuinely soulful. And Terrence McNally's book tugs at your heart and conscience with such artful aggression that only an ogre could resist the urge to weep at some points and smile at others.
In this new Kennedy Center-based production, which opened Sunday, those assets are exploited by a supple cast under Marcia Milgrom Dodge's vibrant direction. The creamy-voiced Christiane Noll provides a warm, elegant anchor as Mother, the upper-class matron who, while her haughty husband is off traipsing the North Pole with real-life explorer Robert Peary, crosses paths with a black couple and a Jewish immigrant.
Her first encounter with the immigrant – Tateh, a starving artist who will later reinvent himself as a film director – is fleeting. But Sarah, the desperate lover of a Harlem musician, becomes family after Mother rescues her baby son.
The musician, a good-natured, upwardly mobile young man named Coalhouse Walker Jr., tracks Sarah down and endears himself to Mother and her own young son. But after a run-in with a racist fire chief leads to tragedy, Coalhouse, having lost Sarah, turns to violence. Mother, meanwhile, meets Tateh again and feels drawn to him.
More anguish and joy follow, and other figures from history, from Henry Ford to Harry Houdini, appear to reinforce the era's shifting values. Savannah Wise has an impish turn as proto-reality star Evelyn Nesbit, who became a tabloid darling when her husband shot her ex-lover, while Donna Migliaccio gives radical activist Emma Goldman a booming voice and stern mien.
The fictional characters give Ragtime its authenticity, though, from Quentin Earl Darrington's noble Coalhouse to Mother's little boy, whom Christopher Cox plays with sweetness and spunk. Both Darrington and Stephanie Umoh, cast as Sarah, have powerful voices that can seem shrill or even pitch-shy in especially piqued moments.
But when Coalhouse and Sarah are finally reunited, in a way, at the end of the show, your heart will tell your ears to get over it. Emotion conquers all in this Ragtime, so check your skepticism at the door and enjoy.
No word has been more bandied about in American life the past two years than change. And no show investigates the nuances of that word as it relates to the American Dream -- conveying hope, opportunity and success, but also the ugly flipside of pain, division, confusion and violence -- more masterfully than "Ragtime." The 1997 musical not only feels trenchant and timely, but its multistrand story is delivered with fresh clarity and emotional immediacy in director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge's elegant revival, transferring to Broadway from D.C.'s Kennedy Center, where it originated in April. This is big-brain, bold-strokes musical-theater storytelling at its most vibrant.
Adapted by book writer Terrence McNally from the panoramic 1975 E.L. Doctorow novel, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the uncommonly ambitious show brings together a creative team working at peak potential. But despite its gifted cast and elaborate visual trappings, Frank Galati's original staging -- overseen with the bombast of a Barnum-esque showman by producer Garth Drabinsky -- somewhat smothered the characters' emotional journeys in spectacle.
By stripping back the production frills yet retaining a grandeur appropriate to the sprawling story in Derek McLane's three-tiered, wrought-iron scaffold set, Dodge has made the focus more intimate, the sorrows more piercing and the joys more uplifting. But as much as the characters, it's the growing pains of a multicultural nation that become the production's pulsating center, swiftly communicated in a stunning opening tableau and in the exhilarating title number that follows.
Built around a seductive ragtime melody that recurs throughout the show and functions as a propulsive narrative engine, that song unfolds in stages that introduce and delineate the plot's three distinct groups. The well-heeled white folks of New Rochelle, N.Y., open the number in their lace and finery, and their stiff, self-consciously formal movements, followed by the black characters, with their more sensual, loosey-goosey physicality. Last come the immigrants, with their ragged clothes and shuffling dance that instantly evokes East European cultures. Interspersed throughout the song, McNally has each of the principal characters present themselves in the third person, at once embracing the literary nature of the material and charging it with theatrical life.
Set in 1902, the story intertwines the paths of a WASP family headed by an unnamed Father (Ron Bohmer) tethered to conservative tradition and a Mother (Christiane Noll) driven to become her own person; black ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker (Quentin Earl Darrington) and his love Sarah (Stephanie Umoh), whose lives are devastated by racism; and Jewish refugee Tateh (Robert Petkoff), who endures the hardships of life in the tenements of Manhattan's Lower East Side with his young daughter (Sarah Rosenthal), eventually emerging as a movie industry pioneer.
Into that fictitious plot, real-life historical figures are folded, among them Harry Houdini (Jonathan Hammond), Emma Goldman (Donna Migliaccio), Booker T. Washington (Eric Jordan Young), J.P. Morgan (Michael X. Martin), Henry Ford (Aaron Galligan-Stierle) and scandalous showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (Savannah Wise). It's a rich historical mosaic whose themes encompass immigration, racism, social injustice, celebrity, politics, industry and capitalism.
Some may quibble that Flaherty's score overplays its hand with its succession of emphatic anthems, but shuffled among those numbers are more delicate songs of introspection and yearning that bring the show gently back to earth from its many soaring peaks. Under Dodge's assured direction, the impeccable cast plays that balance like perfectly tuned instruments.
Supplying the gravitas needed to convey Coalhouse's spiral from gracious gent to embittered urban terrorist, Darrington is a charismatic presence who breathes real authority into his scenes, particularly in the late action when he and his band occupy the Morgan Library. His velvety baritone is heard to especially powerful effect on "Make Them Hear You."
Umoh's Sarah shows a lovely, wounded strength, notably on "Your Daddy's Son." Bohmer grasps the conflict of a decent man too locked into inflexible values to hear "New Music," and Bobby Steggert brings compelling intensity to the firebrand Younger Brother.
But much as the tragedy of Coalhouse and Sarah gives the show its formidable dramatic heft, it's Mother's emotional arc that resonates most poignantly here. Noll is superb at showing the clash of her character's compassion and moral fortitude against her expected role as dutiful, unquestioning wife, and it's touching to witness her nervously discovering the legitimacy of wanting something more. Her "Back to Before" stirringly cements that step, while "Our Children" is a tender realization of her first flickers of romance with Tateh, given soulful depths by Petkoff.
Minor trims have been made to some songs, with no loss of epic scope. Dodge makes intelligent use of the multiple levels of McLane's versatile set to keep all the storylines fluidly in play and to underscore the boundaries of class and ethnicity separating the characters. The upper levels are particularly effective when figures such as Goldman, Houdini and Nesbit are ushered in to observe or comment on the main action.
Donald Holder's majestic lighting adds further dramatic texture, and Santo Loquasto's gorgeous period costumes have been smartly recycled from the original production. The score is beautifully sung, and with 28 musicians in the pit, it's also played with all the exquisite dimension only a full-size orchestra can bring, making "Ragtime" a transporting sensory experience.