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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 15, 2009

Ragtime Book by Terrence McNally. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Based on the novel Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. Directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Music direction by James Moore. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Santo Loquasto. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Hair and wig design by Edward J. Wilson. Orchestrations by William David Brohn. Cast: Ron Bohmer, Quentin Earl Darrington, Christiane Noll, Robert Petkoff, Bobby Steggert, Stephanie Umoh, Christopher Cox, Sarah Rosenthal, with Jonathan Hammond, Donna Migliaccio, Savannah Wise, Eric Jordan Young, Mark Aldrich, Sumayya Ali, Terence Archie, Corey Bradley, Jayden Brockington, Jennifer Evans, Aaron Galligan-Stierle, Carly Hughes, Valisia Lekae, Dan Manning, Michael X. Martin, Mike McGowan, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Bryonha Parham, Mamie Parris, Nicole Powell, Arbender J. Robinson, Benjamin Schrader, Wallace Smith, Josh Walden, Catherine Walker, Kylil Christopher Williams, Carey Rebecca Brown, Benjamin Cook, Lisa Karlin, James Moye, Kaylie Rubinaccio, Jim Weaver.
Theatre: Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street
Schedule: Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm, Sunday at 3 pm
Ticket price: $46.50 - $301.50
Tickets: Ticketmaster

The Ragtime Company
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Is there a more maddening conundrum in the contemporary musical theatre than Ragtime? Its original 1998 Broadway production was too big to be financially viable, yet reducing all or any part of it causes it to crumple like aluminum foil. It's blessed with a smart book (by Terrence McNally) and an even better score (by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty) that mistake epic grandeur for intimacy with erotic abandon. And it constantly says so much so loudly that it usually ends up saying nothing at all. It's everything an artistic success should be, while openly deserving the flop status with which it's so often associated.

Unfortunately, its troubles will only be exacerbated by the revival that just opened at the Neil Simon following a run at the Kennedy Center this past spring. There, it felt like exactly what it was: a marginally above-average first-tier revival of a nearly impossible title. But what was barely passable there simply isn't here, where higher ticket prices and higher expectations demand higher returns from a show that, under better circumstances, is capable of soaring.

This was certainly true of the imperfect original production, which satisfied as both a stirring millennium-ending tribute and a vividly emotional rethinking of the 1975 E.L. Doctorow novel on which it was based. That version, produced by the now-infamous Garth Drabinsky (of Livent) and directed by Frank Galati, was a return to the Broadway epics of yore. Its 50-person cast, sumptuous sets and costumes, and a prevailing sense of self-importance made for thrilling takes on McNally's paean to tolerance and Ahrens and Flaherty's nouveau-patriotism-meets-jazz-and-klezmer score.

True, it all threatened to dwarf what the writers apparently thought was a story about a handful of people riding the tides of social change in 1906 New York. But what's become clear in the intervening years is that all that excess is, in fact, a requirement. Without sweeping scenic vistas, stage-filling dance numbers, and balcony-bursting performances, the show cannot support itself. Its weight is both its context and its content, the thing that prevents the oversized anthems and keening emotionalism from being too big and too silly.

Every reduced Ragtime I've seen has failed because their directors didn't reconcile the work's needed size with their own minimal budgets. In D.C., this production looked like it had the largest budget of any since Drabinsky's, with expansive (if not attractive) scaffolding sets from Derek McLane, lively costumes (by Santo Loquasto, also the designer of the original), nearly 40 cast members and a 28-piece orchestra playing William David Brohn's original orchestrations. There were lots of stumbles in director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge's conception, but it looked as though she at least tried to balance the height, width, and depth of the writing with the production itself.

The cast and orchestra sizes have, thankfully, remained intact since the Kennedy Center. But under the harsher lights of Broadway, and with many more changes instituted (and almost none of them good), that passable production has become wilted, vague, and underpowering, playing like an accident where Galati's played like an event.

Christiane Noll, Ron Bohmer, Robert Petkoff, and Sarah Rosenthal.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The woes are evident from the opening number, the 10-minute title song that lays out the scene. We're introduced to WASPs Father (Ron Bohmer), Mother (Christiane Noll), and their son (Christopher Cox), plus Mother's Younger Brother (Bobby Steggert); blacks Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Quentin Earl Darrington), and his on-again-off-again flame Sarah (Stephanie Umoh); and immigrants Tateh (Robert Petkoff) and his daughter (Sarah Rosenthal). Peppered onto this plate are famous personages from all three groups: orator Booker T. Washington (Eric Jordan Young), immigrant escape artist Harry Houdini (Jonathan Hammond), rabble-rouser Emma Goldman (Donna Migliaccio), tabloid sexpot Evelyn Nesbit (Savannah Wise), and entrepreneurs extraordinaire J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford (Michael X. Martin and Aaron Galligan-Stierle, respectively).

Ideally, they'd all swirl and collide within the tensions they faced before the equality we enjoy today. Here, they sadly trudge across McLane's platforms and stairways, only to reach the stage and wander about aimlessly. As they arrange themselves as if for Virginia line dancing, you don't sense that anyone has anything on his or her mind other than performing the proper steps. When Emma Goldman barks about hating certain capitalistic "sons of bitches," she may as well be ordering cherry pie at a diner.

This is not "the era exploding, the century spinning" that the lyrics promise, but static and makeshift people moving that doesn't propel us into the stories of how Coalhouse finds and loses love and then enacts bloody revenge, how Mother frees herself from the psychological confines of her restrictive marriage, and how Tateh moves from poor artist to filthy-rich filmmaker. Without that initial forward motion, the show can do little but lurch for well over two and a half hours.

Milgrom Dodge has tried to correct for this by slashing many scenes and songs to bits - I noticed significant internal cuts in at least nine numbers. But most of the sections she leaves intact aren't much better: Evelyn Nesbit is treated as a supporting player in her only real solo, "Crime of the Century"; "Nothing Like the City" finds Mother's son and Tateh's daughter singing to each other from 20 feet away; "What a Game!", which presents the evolution of baseball from an elite pastime into a populist one has been stripped of all its laughs and bite; and so on.

These changes all identify Milgrom Dodge's attempts to wrangle the show down to manageable size. But all they do is sap the power and passion from a story that need them operating at full strength from beginning to end. Worse, she's demanded the same of the performers, many of whom make no impression at all.

Stephanie Umoh and Quentin Earl Darrington.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Only in Darrington's case is that a positive: Because he offers no sharply defined point of view, Coalhouse's well-meaning passivity ignites richer explosions later, which give the character much of the second-act oomph it so desperately needs. Bohmer has de-shtick-ified Father since D.C., but still makes him more of a nonentity than a man about to be left behind by history. Noll mines none of Mother's rebellious warmth, remaining a chilly cipher throughout - her rendition of the role's traditional empowerment showstopper, "Back to Before," is enthusiastically inert.

Petkoff is better as the earlier, angrier Tateh than the more civilized one, his youthful take on the role imbuing it with an energetic urgency that's rarely come through in more world-weary interpretations. Umoh is mildly engaging as the ill-fated Sarah, but her scooping and flatness in her soul-searing aria, "Your Daddy's Son," hints at none the power actresses like Audra McDonald (who created the role and won a Tony) and LaChanze have found in it. Steggert's Younger Brother is literally brain-dead, always speaking as if breathing is too much effort. The character isn't supposed to be a dullard but a revolutionary looking for a perfect outlet.

Steggert's characterization typifies this production as a whole: always taking the easy path and ignoring smarter, if more challenging, options that would show greater respect for the work and the audience. The original's opulence will likely never be seen again, which is only dangerous for productions like this one that pretend that aspect of its essential character may safely be ignored. As proved true of racial disharmony in the early 20th century, it needs to be tackled head-on if the solution is ever to be found. The problem with this Ragtime isn't that it hasn't found the answer, but that it hasn't even bothered to look for it.

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