Review: Ragtime (The Musical)

This seems to be my weekend for patronizing the arts. It started on Friday with seeing Star Trek (on an IMAX screen) and concluded today with a hop into the District of Columbia to see the musical Ragtime at The Kennedy Center. Ragtime premiered on Broadway in 1998. My wife and I saw a touring version the following year at The National Theatre. Seeing it once and enjoying it so much was ample reason for seeing it again, but I doubted a production eleven years later could match the Broadway touring version. I was wrong. This production is better.

When it premiered on Broadway, Ragtime received mixed reviews, won a host of Tony awards, survived 834 performances, and finally closed in early 2000. People tend to either like Ragtime or loathe it. I am in the former category and consider it a great musical with a compelling progressive theme. In fact, it is one of my favorite musicals. It remains something of a one hit wonder for composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens. I liked Ragtime so much I bought the CD to their subsequent musical, Seussical, which was a dreadful disappointment. Ragtime though is filled with mostly glorious music and delightful lyrics. Moreover its story (which is based on the 1975 book by E.L. Doctorow) is compelling, if at times a bit preachy. If, like me, you liked the musical Les Miserables, you should see Ragtime too.

Ragtime illuminates the early 20th century for newer generations by introducing prominent historical characters of the time like Booker T. Washington, Andrew Carnegie and Emma Goldman. It throws us into the vexing social issues of the time including immigration, poverty and the rise of labor unions. Mostly the story revolves around a family in New Rochelle, New York who go by titles (“Father”, “Mother”, “Younger Brother” and the like) rather than names. It is a musical about the clash of cultures and the slow dance cultures must make to get to know each other. While the blacks were freed, segregation and injustice was still an unfortunate fact for African Americans. Colehouse Walker though becomes something of a black success story by playing this seductive new music called ragtime in Harlem honkytonks. Despite the strict segregation of the time, through a series of events their lives intersect. This begins improbably when Mother discovers that a local washwoman gave birth to a son but buried it in their garden. Yeah, this is pretty unlikely, particularly when the infant is found alive, but it does make for an interesting story, particularly when it forces Mother to stop being a stereotype and confront the messiness of human life for the first time.

If you have not seen the musical, there is plenty to enjoy, but I think you will find this special staging available in The Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center especially luminous. A few scenes were apparently trimmed but none that mattered while the staging itself underwent a radical facelift. In this staging, we have a stage with three levels rather than many sets continuously going on and off stage. The Kennedy Center reputedly spent a hefty $4.5 million to stage the musical yet often went with props as metaphors. Colehouse Walker’s piano is an acrylic shell, and the Model-T that figured so prominently on Broadway is just a frame with suggestive tires.

What it lacks in lavish staging this production makes up with exquisite singers, many of who also happen to be first class actors. Back in 1999, I was wowed by the troupe that came through. This cast easily beats the original touring company in both singing and acting. The only thing that worked better in the Broadway version was the giant swing that careened periodically across the stage whenever Evelyn Nesbit was on stage. In this production, we see her parodying her testimony at the “Trial of the Century” in a Vaudeville show. She sits on one scale of justice while bags of money weigh down the other scale.

Both Father and Mother look a lot younger than they were in the touring version and have better voices. Mother, played by Christiane Noll, did a great job. I particularly enjoyed her chemistry with Tateh (played by Manoel Felciano) during their lovely song “Our Children”. She also stood out in her soliloquy song (and in my opinion the best song of the musical) “Back to Before”. I was wiping away tears after she finished that song. The principal part in the show belongs to Colehouse Walker Junior, played by Quentin Earl Darrington. Darrington, like Noll, proves he has just the right ability to combine powerful singing with first class acting, although he does seem a bit old for the part. My vote though for most outstanding performance during the show is to Jennlee Shallow, who plays the pivot part of Sarah, the woman who carried Colehouse Walker’s son. Her face is amazingly expressive, positively radiant when in the presence of Colehouse, and yet sinks to the blackest of despairs during her signature song “Your Daddy’s Son”.

Given the musical’s budget it is not surprising that there are no bad actors in this staging. Bobby Steggert feels visceral in the part of Younger Brother. I liked the Broadway Emma Goldman a bit better than Donna Migliaccio’s performance. However, in this staging Emma is mostly found in the rafters rather than on the stage, which makes it harder to establish her presence. The orchestration was top notch but not overpowering.

While I did not see the show on Broadway, the touring version I did see has to have been comparable to it. Consequently, I have to think that The Kennedy Center produced a show at least as good, if not better, than which appeared on Broadway. If you are a fan of the musical, this staging should not be missed. Unfortunately, this production closes May 17th.

Update 7/3/2009. The version that I saw has been promoted to Broadway with most of the cast intact. If you are a fan of the show and can get to New York to see it, you are in for a treat.

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