Simpler Yet Still Sublime: "Ragtime"

Some might feel it is too soon for a revival of Ragtime, but there is no time like the present for this exhilarating, moving epic musical based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow. The show is well known for its opulent original production, a history pageant that spared no expense in becoming a theatrical event. That production lingers in the hearts and minds of many theatre-goers for its superb original cast, and the Tony-winning score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. It also is remembered for the less than stellar reception it received the first time around, finding itself in competition with the critical darling The Lion King across the street, losing the Best Musical Tony and closing when Garth Drabinsky’s Livent collapsed after 834 performances and a financial loss.

Imported from the Kennedy Center, this production strips away the physical extravagance that some felt overwhelmed the first production, finding at its heart the story of three diverse families whose lives somehow intersect during the post-Gilded Age. More faithful to the source material than the film adaptation, the musical Ragtime opens with one of the most extraordinary pieces of expository writing known to musical theatre. In nine minutes, we are introduced to every major character, every theme and every thread of plot which we are to follow for the next two and a half hours.

An archetype family of affluent WASPS living in Westchester find themselves rattled from their suburban complacency by the discovery of an abandoned African American baby in their garden. The family’s lives are forever changed by this moment, by taking in the young woman and exposing themselves to much of the unjustices and darker underbelly of the American dream (as experienced by the immigrant Tateh, who also becomes intertwined in their lives in the second act). Doctorow’s original novel finds these fictional characters encountering many historical figures such as Evelyn Nesbitt, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan and Booker T. Washington. Those characters are also supplanted into the musical, where they serve as observers and commentators on the main fragments of the plot.

Comparisons with the original production are inevitable, especially given it’s been less than ten years since the original closed at the (now) Hilton Theatre. However, director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, in removing the opulence turns this large musical into an actor driven piece. It’s not as drastic as the family band version of Sweeney Todd from a few seasons back, but it places further emphasis on the characters, who are less stately and more realized in this production. Rather than overwhelming the audience in its history, Dodge focuses on the human connections providing great emotional intensity in her stage visuals.

Quentin Earl Darrington plays Coalhouse with an unaffected earnestness that is tragically contrasted by his grief-stricken vigilantism in the second act. Stephanie Umoh has the the inenviable task of filling Audra McDonald’s Tony award winning shoes as the ill-fated Sarah, but if she doesn’t make you forget her predecessor, she certainly rises to the occasion. Ron Bohmer finds considerable dimension in Father, a man aware of change around him but so grounded in his fastidious manner he can’t accept or adapt to it. Even more pleasantly surprising is his ability to make his character sympathetic. Rob Petkoff exudes considerable warmth and charm as the immigrant turned filmmaker Tateh. Bobby Steggert proves exceptional as Mother’s Younger Brother, simmering with angst and finding himself through activism, and later joining Coalhouse in his quest for justice.

The emotional core of the entire musical is to be found in Christiane Noll’s layered, multifaceted portrayal of Mother. The character with the most overwhelming arc, Mother emerges from docile housewife to an independent woman aware of herself and her responsibility in the world. Noll, known mostly as the woman who wasn’t Linda Eder in the original Jekyll & Hyde, comes into her own with a star making turn that is sure to be the talk of the spring’s awards season. She finds humor and pathos in the most subtle nuances of her performance, enhanced by the singing actress’ sumptuous soprano.

The intimacy of Dodge’s staging is further enhanced by the three-tier set by Derek McLane. Utilizing set pieces and lighting, the stage becomes a Ford factory, the house in New Rochelle, the Tempo Club in Harlem, Atlantic City and the Morgan Library, among other locales. The skeletal abstract nature of the design creates some striking tableau vivants, particularly those seen at the very top of the show and during “New Music.” Supporting actors are often found on a tier of the set, observing the story going on below and is ultimately a spare and effective use of the space. Santo Loquasto, costume designer of the original production, repeats the honor here. The lighting design is by Donald Holder, whose work here is the most atmospheric aspect of the scenography.

I have had the privilege of seeing this musical twice already, once on its first preview and again the other evening (where I found myself behind Ben Brantley). It’s no secret among friends and fellow bloggers that this was the musical production I’ve been looking forward to the most this season. One of the most powerful scores of the last twenty years, Flaherty’s music runs the gamut of period styles including cakewalks, rags, marches as well as soaring anthems and lingering ballads. Ahrens’ lyrics are among her best. One of the strengths of this revival is its retention of William David Brohns Tony-winning original 28 piece orchestration, complemented by exceptional singing. The only severe flaw I tend to find with the show is that it tends to wear its heart and ambition on its sleeve far more than it should, and Terrence McNally’s libretto, while an exceptional example of adapting a novel for musical theatre, fails to match the elegance of the score.

If the current revival at the Neil Simon Theatre is in every capacity less stately than the original production, it’s a stirring, overwhelmingly emotional event. Already, I am aching for the opportunity to see the show again, as I don’t know if I’ve ever been so moved by a musical production. I saw the original production of The Light in the Piazza a whopping twelve times, and that’s my personal record and I wouldn’t be surprised if this enthusing, affirming revival smashes that record. I can only hope that this time, Ragtime is welcomed to Broadway with the open arms it deserved the first time around.