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This article by Simon Saltzmanwas published

in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 25, 1998. All rights reserved.

Review: `Ragtime’

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

real greatness.

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

opening scene.

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

impetuous brother.

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

Ragtime, Ford Center for the Performing Arts, 213 West

42 Street, 212-307-4100. $31 to $135.

Top Of Page
On Broadway

The key: HHHH Don’t miss; HHH You

won’t feel cheated;

HH Maybe you should have stayed home; H

Don’t blame us.

Ah, Wilderness, Vivian Beaumont, 150 West 65. By Euguene

O’Neill. Previews.

Art, Royale, 242 West 45. Alan Alda, Victor Garber, Alfred

Molina. Previews. Opens March 1.

Beauty and the Beast HHH Palace, Broadway at



Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk

HHHH, Ambassador,

219 West 49.

Cabaret, Roundabout, 124 West 43, 212-719-1300. Previews

begin February 13.

Cats HHH Winter Garden, Broadway & 50.

Chicago HHHH Shubert, 225 West 44. With


Neuwirth and six Tonys.

Forever Tango HHHH Walter Kerr, 219 West 48.


Luis Bravo hit.

Freak, Cort, 138 West 48. By John Leguizamo.

Jekyll & Hyde HH Plymouth, 236 West 45.

Les Miserables HHH Imperial, 249 West 45.

Miss Saigon HHHH Broadway, 53 and Broadway.

Rent HHHH Nederlander, 208 West 41.


1776 HHHH Gershwin, 222 West 51.


Smokey Joe’s Cafe HH Virginia, 245 West 52.

The Capeman H Marquis, Broadway at 46

Street. Ticketmaster.

Paul Simon’s flop.

The Deep Blue Sea, Roundabout, 1530 Broadway,


Previews begin February 28.

The Diary of Anne Frank HH Music Box, 239



The Last Night of Ballyhoo HHH Helen

Hayes, 240

West 44. Ticketmaster.

The Life H Barrymore, 243 West 47.

The Lion King HHHH New Amsterdam,

Broadway &

42. 212-307-4747. Disney’s world theater.

The Old Neighborhood HH Booth, 222 West

45. By

David Mamet.

The Phantom of the Opera HHH Majestic,

247 West


The Scarlet Pimpernel H Minskoff, 200 West

45. Ticketmaster.

The Sound of Music, Martin Beck, 302 West 45. Previews.

The Sunshine Boys HHH Lyceum, 45 Street.


Klugman and Tony Randall.

Titanic HHHH Lunt-Fontanne, 205 West 46.


More affecting than the movie.

Top Of Page

A Flea in Her Ear, Roundabout, 1530 Broadway,


Amazing Grace, Theater Four, 424 West 55. Previews.

As Bees in Honey Drown HHH Lucille

Lortel, 121


Black Humor, Cherry Lane, 38 Commerce Street.

Blue Man Group HHHH Astor Place, 434



Christopher Columbus, Harry De Jur, 466 Grand. By Nikos

Kazantzakis. To March 22.

Eddie Izzard, Westbeth, 151 Bank. Ticketmaster.

Eyes for Consuela, City Center Stage, 212-581-1212. By

Sam Shepard.

Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back HHH


Theater, Broadway at 51st.

Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral HHH Soho Playhouse,


Vandam, 212-691-1555.

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde


Minetta Lane, 212-420-8000.

How I Learned to Drive HHHH Century

Theater Center,

111 East 15.

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change

HH, Westside,

407 West 43.

Perfect Crime, Duffy, 1553 Broadway, 212-695-3401.

Pride’s Crossing, Mitzi Newhouse at Lincoln Center, 150

West 65. To April 5.

R & J, Houseman Studio, 450 West 42, 212-354-2220.


adapted by Joe Calarco.

Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants, Second Stage, Broadway

at 76, 212-787-3392. David Mamet.

Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know, Triad, 158 West

72, 212-799-4599.

Stomp HHHH Orpheum, Second Avenue at 8.


The Fantasticks, 181 Sullivan Street Playhouse.


The Maiden’s Prayer, Vineyard, 108 East 15, 212-353-3874.

Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding HHH St. John’s

Church, 212-279-4200.

2 Pianos, 4 Hands HHH Promenade, Broadway &


Visiting Mr. Green, Union Square, 100 East 17.


Eli Wallach.

When Pigs Fly HHH Fairbanks, 432 West 42.



— Simon Saltzman

Top Of Page
Ticket Numbers

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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