A superbly re-imagined production of "Ragtime" has opened at the Paper Mill Playhouse. In many ways, it is superior to the original. When "Ragtime" opened on Broadway in 1998, it was hailed as much for its lofty ambitions as it was for its notable achievements. But here is a staging that is full of thrills but with relatively few frills that significantly helps to confirm the musical’s place as a true American classic. This is basically the same version first seen in London in 2003 but with an American cast. Again at the helm is the original London director, Canadian Stafford Arima, who is credited with the re-consideration of this sprawling epoch. To his credit, the emotional core of the story takes precedent over spectacle.
When it was first produced, Ragtime’s story may have been somewhat overshadowed by an extravagant production that spared nothing to turn E.L. Doctorow’s best-selling 1975 novel into a visually stunning and imposing musical. Notwithstanding "Ragtime’s" original virtues, the uncompromisingly adult and craftily constructed adaptation for the stage by Terrence McNally seems now more deservedly prominent. Its three compelling interwoven dramas are unquestionably enhanced by this new vision.
If "Ragtime," the novel, proved daunting to filmmakers, it has had no such effect on McNally, who spins out the multiple and interweaving stories with remarkable clarity and focus. Besides the principals, the peripheral characters, such as the great escape artist Harry Houdini, explorer Admiral Robert E. Peary, anarchist Emma Goldman, industrialists Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan, and prominent black educator Booker T. Washington, affect us and leave lasting impressions.
Even that infamous show girl, Evelyn Nesbit, is making headlines in a murder-sex scandal known as "The Crime of the Century." Nesbit, referred to as the "harlot of Babylon" is insinuatingly portrayed by Betsy Wolfe and this despite not being seen upon the famous red velvet swing. Debra Cardona is a standout as the feisty speechifying Goldman. As part of the form and fabric of this musical, they all go about their affairs and business with great verve and panache, affecting and changing the entertainment, economic, social, and political world around them.
The admirably restrained theatricality with which the musical presents a panoramic portrait of America during the early part of the 20th century is not to be undervalued. The original London set and costume designer Robert Jones has created eye-filling period-perfect fashions. But they are the sole visual reference to the era in an otherwise impressionistic landscape enhanced by Mark Stanley’s magical lighting. That they are able to take us to a home in New Rochelle, the docks of New York, Ellis Island, a vaudeville theater, an automobile assembly line, the boardwalk in Atlantic City, and a hideout in Harlem through the use of smoky mirrored panels, and rows of chairs is stage magic at its best. But this they do, as well as are able to mirror a time that struggled between the naive and neurotic, the impulsive and compulsive, the corrupt and courageous. It was a time, as this production makes particularly clear, that has an uncanny similarity to now.
This minimalist approach, a feat nothing short of stunning, helps to keep the focus on the entwining lives of the middle-class WASP family of New Rochelle, New York; Tateh, the Jewish immigrant and his daughter; and Coalhouse Walker Jr., the black musician, the woman he loves, and their son.
Tying it all musically together is the towering quasi-operatic score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Theirs is a monumental achievement that captures the flamboyance and romantic bravura of the ragtime era. But beyond the obligatory homage to Scott Joplin, the music also vibrates with its own metaphors to express the rage of economic hardship, the reforms of political unrest, as well as the soaring declarations of love and hope that also mark this rapidly changing time. It isn’t such a bad thing that the broad sweep of Flaherty’s music and the depth of Ahrens lyrics evoke a feeling of Americana that we haven’t heard since Gershwin’s "Porgy and Bess." The orchestra, under the direction of David Loud, beautifully fulfills the demanding dynamics of the lush score.
The musical begins on a wistfully nostalgic key with Little Boy (Kyle McLaughlin) stepping into the spotlight to give the opening narrative that introduces his well-to-do family in a handsome tableau of marked elegance and simplicity. Soon, all the main fictional characters are introduced, including the arriving immigrants and segregated blacks, and each group giving a graceful, unhurried expression in dance of its own social class, culture, and traditions. The show’s cleverest conceit, and one used to great effect, is the use of narrative in the third person, as spoken by the characters themselves. Although there are some delightfully danced fragments throughout, choreographer Liza Gennaro rightly lets the dancing serve as delicate brush strokes on the dominantly dramatic palette.
But the musical is still mainly propelled by its vivid principal characters. Quentin Earl Darrington has an extraordinary and resonant voice and is persuasive as the ill-fated, persecuted Coalhouse. The petite Kenita R. Miller will break your heart as the love of his life, Sarah, the tragically fated mother of his son. Their ecstatic singing of "On the Wheels of a Dream" invites us to think that this may be one of the greatest duets in the American musical theater canon.
In a role with all the potential for cliche, Neal Benari brings an ingratiating virility to his performance as Tateh, the ingenious Jew who is devoted to his daughter (Alona Bach) and destined for success as a movie mogul. Benari’s charismatic presence also helps us believe in his being able to attract Mother (Rachel York), who is not only gorgeous but splendid as the compassionate center of the WASP family and who is about to take one of the era’s first pro-feminist stands.
You won’t remain neutral when it comes to David Hess’s stiff upper crust countenance as a typical chauvinist Father, or Shonn Wile’s obsessive behavior as Mother’s impetuous Younger Brother, who "likes to blow things up." The list of stirring performances could go on. Now more than ever am I convinced that "Ragtime" represents the kind of artistic breakthrough as significant as that made by such landmark musicals as "Show Boat," "Oklahoma," and "Sunday in the Park With George." It fulfills itself as a remarkably intelligent, thought-provoking, and genuinely moving theatrical experience. "Ragtime" is a show for all time and one not to be missed.
Ragtime, through July 17, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn. $31 to $68. 973-376- 4343 or www.papermill.org The performance schedule is Wednesdays at 8 p.m., Thursdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2:30 and 8pm, and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Student rush tickets are $16 and available day of performance in person with student ID.