I have to admit that I went to see the current touring production of Ragtime, in Seattle through January 3rd, with a certain degree of trepidation. Having seen Ragtime in New York with what is not only the definitive cast, but one of the most perfect casts ever assembled for a show, I was a bit concerned that perhaps I fell in love more with the powerful performances rather than with the show itself. I need not have worried. Ragtime, currently one of the hottest tickets and biggest grossers on Broadway, still retains its magic with repeated viewings and a new cast.
Ragtime, based on E. L. Doctorow's award winning novel, tells the story of three families at the turn of the century. In Ragtime, the lives of an affluent white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American family intertwine and collide as they come into contact with each other and with historical characters such as Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford and Evelyn Nesbit. A winner of four Tony Awards this past year, Ragtime has music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and a book by Terrence McNally, who will probably end the millennium as being the most prolific stage writer of the 90's. Ragtime is epic in its scope and music, and deals with racism, poverty, unionization, women's rights and celebrity murder trials - all of the things we hold near and dear to our hearts.
The current tour (which is a drama unto itself, with its eleventh hour buyout by PACE Theatrical Group after Livent's cancellation of the tour due to its current financial woes) is an almost perfect recreation of the Broadway show directed by Frank Galati, with only a few minor changes to the set.
For the time being, the entire 55 member cast is still in the show (apparently the show is going to be scaled down after the Seattle run) and they are the strongest touring cast I have had the pleasure of seeing and could transfer over to Broadway without changing a single actor. While none of the cast are the powerhouse dynamos found in the original Broadway Cast, this actually serves the piece as a whole extremely well. The original cast were such dynamic performers, that the characters were elevated beyond the level of humanity, becoming instead the archetypes their names imply ("Mother," "Father," "Younger Brother" etc.). Their portrayals turned Ragtime almost into an opera, with emotions and actions larger than life. The touring company, which to a person refrains from imitating the performances of the originals, create much more human characters, bringing the show to a more intimate level.
For example, Audra McDonald's Sarah was an elemental force that blew you away with her emotional intensity. In comparison, Darlesia Cearcy's Sarah is more of an unsure child/woman and is no less effective; her "Your Daddy's Son" was just as heartbreaking, especially since her range colored the high belt moments with more raw urgency. If Alton Fitzgerald White's Coalhouse is not the tour de force as played by Brian Stokes Mitchell, it actually serves to balance the three story lines better, instead of shifting most of the emotional weight to Coalhouse's plight. An incredible dancer, his "Getting Ready Rag" and "Sarah Brown Eyes" possessed a fluidity and sensuality, which rivaled what I saw in New York.
The biggest surprise for me was the part of Father, as played by Chris Groenendaal. On Broadway, I found the character rigid, unsympathetic, and generally uninteresting. As played by Chris, Father is very much an 'everyman;' an ordinary businessman (who would not be at all out of place in today's world), whose life and family passed him by while he was busy elsewhere. I found myself moved by his plight, as he discovers that his 'perfect' family has outgrown him and no longer has room for him in their lives.
In my opinion, the backbone of Ragtime is the part of Mother. She is the main person to interact with all of three of the story lines, and serves to unify the show. Rebecca Eichenberger portrays Mother as an icy patrician East Coast Socialite, a far cry from the earthy warmth of Marin Mazzie. Through the course of the show, we watch her discover her humanity and emotions, which lead her to Tateh, surprisingly played sans accent by Michael Rupert. The scenes in Atlantic City where they discover themselves to be soulmates is superbly played, and benefits by the intimate level of their portrayals. You see them falling in love and can spot the exact moment of realization that they belong together, a moment not fully realized when I saw it in New York. Other standouts include Theresa Tova as Emma Goldman and Nathan Keen as The Little Boy, who is portrayed as an ordinary boy, with little of the eeriness seen in New York.
Overall, viewing it again with a completely different cast has reaffirmed my belief that when the inevitable 'end of the Millennium' lists come out, Ragtime will be near the top ten for the best shows of the decade, if not the century. It also is apparent that Ragtime was overlooked by the Tony's this past year in at least two categories: Best Choreography (with repeated viewing, one notices just how much of the show is choreographed, and in a seamless style which leads one to believe that a director/choreographer helmed the show) and Best Musical. In my opinion, the fact that Ragtime can be interpreted in such drastically different ways, and by performers who are still working within the same framework of the original production, demonstrates not only the complexities of the piece, but the skill in which it was put together. It truly lives up to its hype of being 'the last great musical of the Century.'