Ragtime achieved one of the highest levels of critical acclaim of any Broadway musical in the 1990s. Though it lost the 1998 Best New Musical Tony Award to The Lion King, almost every aspect of the original production was highly praised. Luckily, the current non-equity tour being presented in Dayton, Ohio as part of the Victoria Theatre Association - Broadway Series retains most of the elements that make the musical an artistic and theatrical success.
Ragtime mixes real-life figures such as Evelyn Nesbit, JP Morgan, Emma Goldman, and Harry Houdini, with fictional characters in telling the story of America in the early 1900s. Representatives from three diverse groups, the well-off white residents of New Rochelle, New York, African Americans from Harlem, and newly arrived Eastern European immigrants, are shown striving towards the American Dream of success. Their lives unexpectedly intertwine due to the rapidly changing world, and these changes mirror the emerging musical sounds of the period.
The magnificent score has music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. This pair, who also provided strong scores for Broadway shows such as Seussical and Once On This Island, received a Tony Award for their work on Ragtime. The show boasts an effective mix of soaring anthems ("Back To Before," "Wheels of a Dream"), tender ballads ("Your Daddy's Son," "Our Children"), and songs featuring the syncopated rhythms that give the piece its title ("New Music," "Ragtime"). For readers familiar with the score, it should be noted that the song "He Wanted To Say" has been cut for this tour and replaced by a shorter dialogue scene. In addition, the orchestrations by William David Brohn (Tony Award Winner for Ragtime), though excellent, are delivered by a tiny seven piece orchestra and the resulting sound seems inadequate at times, especially to the ears of one accustomed to the Broadway version.
Terrence McNally (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Love! Valour! Compassion! ) likewise won a Tony Award for his work on Ragtime. His book weaves a human tapestry of lives, themes, and emotions that is both uplifting and moving. Issues of bigotry, gender equality, and class discrimination are addressed on both individual and social levels, and McNally's libretto provides a solid foundation for the excellent score.
Ragtime offers a large number of leading and supporting opportunities, and the cast for this production is mostly up to the challenge. Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Emily Herring as Mother do well in their demanding roles. If neither of them provide portrayals quite as detailed as their Broadway or equity tour counterparts, each display a fine singing voice and commendable acting ability. James Walsh's Tateh, while slightly less appealing due to a weaker singing voice, is likewise acceptable. Kenita R. Miller turns in the show's finest performance. She exhibits a beautiful singing ability and the required vulnerability as Sarah. Peter Adams and Chris Crouch, as Father and Younger Brother respectively, also possess fine voices and are well suited to characters. With only a single exception, the other supporting players and the large ensemble do exceptionally well.
In this production directed by Stafford Arima, many elements of Frank Galati's excellent original work are smartly preserved. Some changes have been made to adapt to the altered design elements, the slightly smaller cast, and other limiting factors, and the choices made maintain the flow and pace of the show. Candace Jennings has recreated Graciela Daniele's musical staging/choreography, which is often innovative, and always benefits the show.
The design elements for this tour are different than those for the Broadway production and previous equity tour, and sometimes surpass them. In order to accommodate smaller stages and be more economically feasible, designer Eugene Lee features many very attractive scrims, panels, and projections rather than some of the large set pieces used before. The use of period images is visually effective and adds to the tone of many scenes in ways that props and sets never could. The lighting by Tom Sturge also varies somewhat from previous productions. The use of red, white, and blue to individually highlight the three main groups in the opening number is effective, and there are other well-done lighting choices throughout. However, adequate lighting during the song "Gliding" to replicate the movement of the train is noticeably absent.
Ragtime is truly one of the greatest musicals of the last forty years, and the current non-equity national tour of the show continues to deliver its powerful messages with skill and melody. The show continues at the Victoria Theatre in Dayton, Ohio through January 27, 2002. Tickets may be ordered by calling (937) 228-3630.