Monday, November 16, 2009


Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

I remember being excited to read Ragtime when it was published in 1975. I love American history and novelist E.L. Doctorow did a masterful job weaving real-life characters into his fictional story of three families at the turn of the century.

But until I stumbled upon the Broadway cast recording a couple years ago, I didn't even know there was a musical. I hoped someday I'd get to hear the stirring Tony-winning score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens performed live.

Enter the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., which staged Ragtime in the spring under the direction of Marcia Milgrom Dodge. That production won raves and transferred to Broadway, opening last night at the Neil Simon Theatre.

When Ragtime begins and you see the cast arrayed on Derek McLane's spare, industrial-looking three-tiered set, it feels like an epic story.

The prologue that introduces the WASP, African-American and Jewish immigrant characters is glorious. And there are powerful images - Eastern European Jews carrying their belongings on their backs cross paths with black migrants from the South doing the same.

Christiane Noll was a standout for me as Mother, who becomes more confident and independent as her affluent life in New Rochelle, N.Y., with her husband and son is upended. In some ways, I felt like Ragtime was her story. I also enjoyed the performance of Bobby Steggert as the impetuous Mother's Younger Brother.

Their lives become intertwined with Tateh, a Jewish immigrant played by Robert Petkoff who struggles to provide for his daughter, and with the self-assured black piano player Coalhouse Walker Jr., played by Quentin Earl Darrington, and Sarah, played by Stephanie Umoh, the mother of his infant son.

As interesting and compelling as these three stories are, they didn't grab me emotionally to the extent I thought they would.

Part of it may be that because I knew how the musical would turn out, there was no element of surprise. Plus, it's tough to distill a novel into another medium and because Ragtime has so many stories to tell, the musical seems to sacrifice depth for breadth.

I especially felt a distance from the story of Coalhouse and Sarah, which I always thought was the heart of Ragtime. I liked Darrington's and Umoh's singing but I didn't sense much chemistry between them. I also felt like we didn't spend enough time with them together. Still, I saw a very early preview so I want to give them the benefit of the doubt.

A bigger problem I had with Ragtime was the way Dodge has staged a key event involving an act of racism. No one is hurt, or even targeted physically, but it's still devastating - or at least it's supposed to be. Honestly, my reaction was, "That's so lame." I know it's theatre and we're supposed to suspend disbelief but I couldn't.

Playwright Terrence McNally, who won a Tony for the book, has provided a panoramic view of New York City in the first two decades of the 20th century, a time of mass immigration, mass production and mass entertainment.

There are great cameos from, among others, Donna Migliaccio as the fiery anarchist Emma Goldman, Eric Jordan Young as African-American educator Booker T. Washington, and Jonathan Hammond as escape artist Harry Houdini. I especially enjoyed Savannah Wise as showgirl Evelyn Nesbit. Together, they put the individual stories of Ragtime's three families into a larger context.

This is an ambitious, entertaining musical and well worth seeing for its gorgeous score and its sweeping look at a time in American history when everything seemed to be changing. But I admired it more than I truly felt touched by it.

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