On Stage: “Ragtime”

Spoilers included, so read carefully!

Of all the plays and musicals I was going to see this year, I was most excited for the Broadway revival of Ragtime.  Along with Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, it ranks as the greatest musical I never saw.  Knowing it only from the E.L. Doctorow novel on which it is based and the original cast recording, both works of art in their respective mediums, my expectations for Ragtime were rather high.  I took my brother to see it yesterday and, by and large, those expectations were met.

Ragtime is set in 1902, with most of the action taking place in New York City.  It tells the intertwining stories of three families: a well-to-do white family from suburban New Rochelle, a penniless immigrant and his daughter from the Jewish ghetto of eastern Europe, and a young black couple from Harlem who stand at the edge of unprecedented opportunity.  Sometimes more representations of their culture or class than individuals in their own right, these fictional characters often find themselves at the crossroads of important true events, interacting with actual historic figures.  It is a sprawling, intricately plotted drama that tackles numerous themes: racism, sexism, xenophobia, the struggle of the working man, the value (or lack thereof) of celebrity, the injustices of the justice system, the emptiness of radicalism, the power of the individual, and the inevitable forward motion of history.

The massive set and cast of "Ragtime"

This production bears the advertising slogan, “Their time.  Our time.  Ragtime“, and it could not be more apt.  In many ways, Ragtime is far more relevant and resonant today than when it debuted ten years ago.  That’s because Ragtime is simultaneously an effusive celebration of and a scathing condemnation of the United States of America.

There’s no better example of this than in the scenic design by Derek McLane.  The towering, multifunctional framework of scaffolds and stairways is certainly impressive, but it’s just a skeleton.  There’s no meat on the bones.  It’s cold, bare, and lifeless.  The largest and most important prop in the show, a Model T Ford driven by one of the protagonists, is similarly stripped down, as base as can be while still being recognizable as an automobile.  It’s the single most tangible embodiment of the American Dream, and it’s completely hollow.

The life of Ragtime is in its music.  I think it’s one of the most brilliant, intelligent, emotionally epic scores ever composed for a musical.  The music of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens is compulsively listenable as well as historically authentic, give or take a few belting ballads.  The union of character and song is a stylistic match made in musical heaven.  If Ragtime condescends to the alleged power of the American Dream, it makes an awfully strong case, both within the story and without, for the alleged power of music to inspire change on both a personal and cultural level.

Christiane Noll as Mother

The cast of this revival does every note justice.  The original production featured Broadway powerhouses Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald as doomed lovers Coalhouse Walker Jr and Sarah.  Quentin Earl Darrington and Stephanie Umoh can’t compete with either of their predecessors, but they do well enough.  I wasn’t particularly impressed by Darrington until the final moments of the show, when his absence became so powerfully noticeable.  The far more interesting and unusual pair in this production is Christiane Noll as Mother and Robert Petkoff as Tateh.  Noll does award-worthy work with her character’s grand arc from desperate housewife to a pre-suffrage liberated woman, and Petkoff expertly plays the jubilation, frustration, and pride of a man making his way in a new world.  Their chemistry together was as surprising to me as it was to their characters.

Donna Migliaccio as Emma Goldman

A number of featured players are notable: Eric Jordan Young as Booker T. Washington, Savannah Wise as Evelyn Nesbitt, and Donna Migliaccio as Emma Goldman.  Bobby Steggert couldn’t muster up enough depth to make me really care about Mother’s Younger Brother, and Ron Bohmer could have found more tragedy and less caricature in Father, a man so set in his ways and confused by the changing world around him that he literally drowns in the shifting tide of history.

Director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge is to be commended for her excellent work in not only moving forty people around the stage, but for giving them such creative, individual, and symbolic ways of doing so.  She uses the entire cast at many different times, and their combined presence in those scenes gives them a powerful, almost ritualistic quality.  For a show so concerned with history, it makes sense that Dodge taps back into the primal Greek origins of theater, with its observant, reverent chorus.

Dodge has worked equally well with her design team.  She directed Derek McLane to great success with his minimalist sets and props, but the costumes of Santo Loquasto are sometimes distractingly full-bore.  Evelyn’s “Crime of the Century” vaudeville number was especially extravagant.  Donald Holder’s lighting was masterful, turning the bare backdrop from a clear Atlantic City sky to a city ablaze with subtlety.  My only complaint is that she didn’t do as much work with Flaherty and Ahrens, or librettist Terrance McNally.  She cut some verses out of certain numbers (both favorites of mine), and cleverly if disappointingly cuts one number off completely right as it gets really cooking.  Yet making cuts to the perfect score does not improve the imperfect book.  A number of dialogue scenes could have used rewrites, in hopes that they might become as resonant as some of the songs.  Some crucial book scenes are so rushed (Sarah’s plan for justice, Younger Brother’s defiance of Father) that they diminish the credibility of the character and their motivation.

Despite this, I still contend that not only is Ragtime worth your time, it will likely be one of the better shows you’ll see this theater season or next.  Consider this one not just for the history dorks.  When the snow finally melts, go try for a ticket.

~ T

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