Theatre Is Easy: “Ragtime”

Written by Theatre, Theatre Is Easy

BOTTOM LINE: Traditional musical theatre at its best.

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It wasn’t really time for a revival of Ragtime. The new musical first opened on Broadway in 1998 and ran for two years. It was mostly well received, winning Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical as well as Best Score (Lion King beat it for the coveted Best Musical prize). It starred Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell in what was a categorically extravagant, traditional Broadway production similar to The Phantom of the Opera and Wicked (although Wicked wouldn’t open for a few more years).

But something unique happened with this production of Ragtime (directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge) originally staged for and presented at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.: Everyone freaking loved the show. It could have been Broadway bound from the beginning, but its overwhelming response probably had something to do with the show’s New York transfer. I have to agree with the fans on this one; This production of Ragtime is fantastic. It is everything that is magical about musical theatre, down to its most basic storytelling intentions and emotional connection with its audience. The show itself isn’t perfect, but this revival is really incredible.

Ragtime is an historic musical, pulling from fact and showcasing real figures as its characters. The story is fictional, but the details are very real. Based in New Rochelle, New York, in the early 20th century, Ragtime exposes a tumultuous time in America when race relations were just beginning to be a topic of discussion although racism still ran rampant throughout the country. The story follows the plight of Mother and Father and their WASP-y, rich, New York life. Father goes away on a year-long vacation and Mother finds her life intertwined with a black family from Harlem. When father returns he can’t believe what’s happened and demands that the association be broken. The fight for equality unfolds before the audience’s eyes and subsequent drama ensues.

Written by Terrence McNally (The Ritz, The Full Monty, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune), the script is rooted in the very raw emotion of these characters as they try to understand their own feelings on race relations. Much of the show is sung and therefore, much of the dialogue is revealed through lyrics. With music and lyrics by the team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Once On This Island, Seussical), the true passion is often let loose through soulful song. The biggest asset this production has is its ability to truthfully convey these highest of emotions and make these characters’ inner struggles palpable. I must admit, this is the first production I’ve seen of Ragtime, so I’m not sure if the music itself is so powerful that any actor inhabiting his role can relate the sentiment with such truth, but it’s certainly true of this production and I’d wager it’s the reason why audiences find themselves so drawn to the show.

The night I saw the show, the audience was on their feet barely before the final curtain came down. They absolutely loved it. And it wasn’t one of those undeserved standing ovations (you know, the “I paid $120 for this ticket and I’ve never been to a Broadway show before so I will proudly stand to be a part of the experience even though the show was mediocre at best”). Ragtime elicits thunderous applause from a grateful audience, thrilled to have experienced the magic. This seems so cheesy as I write it but I guess classic musical theatre is cheesy by design. I will be honest when I tell you that the night I saw the show the audience was a good 70 percent geriatric. But my date and I (both in our 20s) found the production to be incredibly moving so maybe this is just one of those shows that, although G-rated, is really appropriate for any age range.

Much of the cast is from the Kennedy Center production and many are making their Broadway debuts. Standouts include Christiane Noll as Mother, Ron Bohmer as Father, Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse and Stephanie Umoh as Sarah. They all have incredible voices and are also powerful actors — as a result they bring their characters to life. Maybe this is the reason this revival is getting a better response than the original production (I don’t know exactly how you quantify that but it seems to be the universal response from everyone I’ve talked to who has seen both productions). This version employs actors for whom the audience doesn’t already have an association. And this production, unlike many other commercial Broadway shows, doesn’t seem like its first goal is to make money. It might very well be a cash cow in the making, but it doesn’t hit you over the head with its fancy production value and pyrotechnics. The set, lights and sound are phenomenal, but they are meant to serve the story, not to show you the latest in projection technology.

So at the end of the day, this revival of Ragtime seems like its main intention is to bring its audience along on the journey, and to tell a story through music with grace, class and artistic integrity. It’s a rare find on Broadway these days to see a musical that doesn’t wear its commercial intentions on its sleeve. And it has the goods to back it up with an incredible cast and orchestra that do justice to the show itself. This revival is probably not the next sensation to hit Broadway, but it’s a great theatrical experience for anyone who appreciates traditional musical theatre. The production is modern enough that it feels like a 21st-century show, but it pays its respects to musical theatre’s roots none-the-less. See Ragtime if you appreciate the genre, or if you are taking your parents to the theatre. You’ll have a lovely time.

Ragtime plays at the Neil Simon Theater, 250 W. 52nd St., between Broadway and 8th Ave. Performances are Tue 7 PM, Wed-Sat 8 PM (also Wed and Sat 2 PM), and Sun 3 PM. Tickets are $47-$127 and can be purchased at ticketmaster.com or by calling 800-755-4000. For more show info, visit ragtimeonbroadway.com.