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This article by Simon Saltzmanwas published
in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 25, 1998. All rights reserved.
Ragtime," one of the most ambitious musicals of
our time, has all the makings of a classic. If it falls just a little
short of greatness, it isn’t because everyone involved in turning
E.L. Doctorow’s best-selling 1975 novel into a stunning, affecting
and imposing musical hasn’t done their job to the fullest. At its
best, which is much of the time, "Ragtime" is as impressively
propelled by its compelling interwoven dramas, as it is by its
visual and musical texture.
However, "Ragtime," also gives the impression of being content
with delivering what was safe and secure about the book, rather than
what was nervy and challenging. Would that other shows could arrive
looking as slick, as polished and as professional in all departments
as "Ragtime." Still, the musical, for all its pleasures, has
the misfortune to appear standing in its own way to being a work of
Nowhere in this impeccably produced, splendidly acted, and
directed (by Frank Galati) musical drama is the edgy sense of danger
that comes with a bold artistic breakthrough or that of an
vision. No where is the daring that made musicals like "Show
"Oklahoma," and "Sunday in the Park With George,"
landmarks. But even with the feeling that greatness has been encrusted
upon it rather than coming from within, "Ragtime" offers the
reward of a remarkably intelligent, adult, thought-provoking, and
genuinely moving theatrical experience.
The mammoth show looks perfectly at home in the new 1,821 seat Ford
Center for the Performing Arts built by the Canadian production
Livent. Like a phoenix, the theater gives the feeling of having arisen
from the ashes of the old Apollo (1920) and Lyric (1903) theaters,
two grand old theaters that once occupied the site. I was impressed
by the tasteful and subdued color scheme of the theater whose design
elements were inspired by and incorporated a combination of the
Adamesque and Lyric’s Italian Renaissance style. The single most
feature, apart from the Greek mythological theme of the interior,
is the 650 square-foot mosaic, incorporating some 172,800 hand-cut
pieces of marble, that grabs the eye upon entering the oval atrium
If "Ragtime," the novel, proved daunting to film makers, it
has had no such effect on the musical’s book writer, Terrence McNally,
who has done a masterful job of telling, and mostly keeping clear,
the multiple and interweaving stories. It is amazing in a show with
so many principal characters, that such significant, yet peripheral,
characters 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,
leave lasting impressions.
And that infamous menage-a-trois — architect Stanford White,
Evelyn Nesbit, and her jealous husband Harry K. Thaw — who are
making headlines in a murder-sex scandal known as "The Crime of
the Century" (kittenishly sung by Lynette Perry on that famous
velvet swing), are also part of remarkable lot. Judy Kaye is standout
as the 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,
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. Spectacle is rampant but exercised
without upstaging the drama. That the $10 million musical still
to keep its 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, is a feat nothing short of amazing.
Tying it all musically together is the towering quasi-operatic score
by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Theirs is a monumental
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
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 evokes a feeling of Americana that we haven’t
heard since Gershwin’s "Porgy and Bess."
The musical begins on a wistful nostalgic key with a
young boy (Alex Strange) coming forward in a path of light. As seen
through his stereopticon, his well-dressed family is brought into
view in a tableau of marked elegance and simplicity. Soon, all the
main fictional characters are introduced, including the arriving
and impoverished blacks, each group giving a graceful, unhurried
in dance of its own social class, culture, and traditions. Although
there are some delightfully danced fragments throughout, choreographer
Graciela Daniele never surpasses her haunting musical staging of the
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
This musical’s dramatic complexity and its musical richness are
Brian Stokes Mitchell is dynamic as the ill-fated, persecuted
As the love of his life and the mother of his son, the also tragically
consigned Audra McDonald will break your heart, especially in the
ravishing duet "Wheels of a Dream."
In a role with all the potential for cliche, Peter Friedman brings
a tender twist to his performance as Tateh, the ingenious Jew with
a destiny in movies. Marin Mazzie is terrific as the compassionate
mother at the center of the WASP family who is about to take one of
the era’s first pro-feminist stands. You won’t remain neutral when
it comes to Mark Jacoby’s stiff unrelenting countenance as a typical
chauvinist husband, or Steven Sutcliffe’s obsessive behavior as the
The list of stirring performances could go on. There are the awesome
contributions of set designer Eugene Lee, who through his artistry
and that of lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer,
allow such ordinary places as the docks of New York, Ellis Island,
a vaudeville theater, an automobile assembly line, the beach at
City, and a hideout in Harlem to mirror a time that struggled between
the naive and neurotic, the impulsive and compulsive, the corrupt
and courageous. It was a time when the press could label a 1904 murder
"The Crime of the Century." Now that takes chutzpah, which
this musical requires just a little more of. HHHH
— Simon Saltzman
42 Street, 212-307-4100. $31 to $135.
The key: HHHH Don’t miss; HHH You
won’t feel cheated;
HH Maybe you should have stayed home; H
Don’t blame us.
Molina. Previews. Opens March 1.
219 West 49.
begin February 13.
Neuwirth and six Tonys.
Luis Bravo hit.
Paul Simon’s flop.
Previews begin February 28.
West 44. Ticketmaster.
42. 212-307-4747. Disney’s world theater.
Klugman and Tony Randall.
More affecting than the movie.
Kazantzakis. To March 22.
Theater, Broadway at 51st.
Minetta Lane, 212-420-8000.
111 East 15.
407 West 43.
West 65. To April 5.
adapted by Joe Calarco.
at 76, 212-787-3392. David Mamet.
— Simon Saltzman
Unless otherwise noted, all Broadway reservations can
be made through Tele-Charge at 212-239-6200. For
reservations, call 212-307-4100.
For current information on Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, music,
and dance call NYC/On Stage at 212-768-1818, a 24-hour performing
arts hotline operated by the Theater Development Fund. The TKTS
half-price ticket booth at Times Square (Broadway & 47th) is open
daily, 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. for evening performances; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
for Wednesday and Saturday matinees; and noon to closing for Sunday
matinees. The lower Manhattan booth, on the Mezzanine at 2 World Trade
Center, is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Saturday
from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; closed on Sunday. Cash or travelers’ checks
only. Visit TKS at: http://www.tdf.org.
A Broadway ticket line, 212-563-BWAY, gives information on Broadway
and selected Off-Broadway shows. Calls can be transferred to various
ticket agencies. Sponsored by Continental Airlines.
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