'Ragtime' revival puts renewed emphasis on people

AP News
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Posted: Nov 15, 2009 7:48 PM

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-century 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 Ford, 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 ominously archetypal names of Father and Mother; Coalhouse Walker Jr., a black ragtime piano player and composer, and Tateh, the immigrant who makes the most astonishing transformation of all.

Dodge brings them all together in a marvelous tiered setting (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 lavishness of its setting but the impeccable casting that anchored the show and which made stars out of such performers as Audra 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 must 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.

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Even Tateh, who is transformed from penniless immigrant to silent-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-nonsense, 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 American century getting ready to explode and make its mark on history.