“Ragtime,” Neil Simon Theatre
“Ragtime,” a musical version of E. L. Doctorow’s sprawling novel, now returns to the Broadway stage. The musical, which had its successful debut in 1998, now returns in a streamlined version, more appropriate to our times with our downed economy. While the current version lacks the previous star-studded cast, its strength lies in its focus on the story.
Terrence McNally, with infinite skill, had adapted the novel for the stage, honing it into a powerful and focused work. It is the story of America at the turn of the last century, a time when ragtime, motor cars, and moving pictures first made their appearances. “Ragtime” focuses on three families of different ethnic and racial background—black, WASP, and Jewish—skillfully weaving all elements into one tapestry. The upper-class WASP family (known only as Father, Mother, and The Little Boy) takes in Sarah, a black woman, and her infant son. The child’s father is Coalhouse Walker, a piano player –and the creator of ragtime.
When Coalhouse locks horns with racial bigots, his story ends in tragedy, as does that of his little family. At the same time Tateh, a Latvian Jewish immigrant, struggles to make an American life for his child. Along the way, he inadvertently invents both the motion picture and Hollywood itself. Mother gradually sheds her smugness, viewing her world and her husband with new eyes, ultimately forming a new alliance with Tateh. Throughout the show, celebrities of the times—Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbitt, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J. P. Morgan—weave their way through the story.
The original production featured a star-studded cast, making it a hard act to follow this time around. Both Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell gave magnificent, larger-than-life performances as Coalhouse Walker and Sarah, thus making their story the major issue. But in the current production, Quentin Earl Darrington and Stephanie Umoh, in appealing but less charismatic, performances, simply blend into the picture. This is true of all the players, who do solid yeoman-like work, but lack the extra pizzazz to make any one portrayal memorable. In fact, it is the design work (Derek McLane’s Santo Loquasto’s costumes, and Donald Holder’s lighting), as well as the choreography and direction of Marcia Milgrom Dodge which are the stars of the show. And throughout, the ragtime beat of Stephen Flaherty’s music provides a lively counterpoint to the abundant struggles. Yet, “Ragtime” gives us a wonderfully poignant look back at an America just coming into existence. It is the birth of the twentieth century, a legacy we have all inherited.
This review was sent to the CT Post, and a somewhat different version to the National Jewish Post & Opinion, jewish-theatre.com, and nytheaterscene.com.