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I Hear America Singing, in Syncopation


Release: 2009-11-16 19:02 |  Author: XianBao |   View: 171time



The Broadway revival of the musical "Ragtime," adapted from E. L. Doctorow's 1975 novel about America in the early 20th century, opened Sunday at the Neil Simon Theater.


Ben Brantley writes: "Marcia Milgrom Dodge's appealingly modest new interpretation, which originated at the Kennedy Center in Washington, often finds within this work's panoramic sweep an affecting, uneasy human soul largely missing in the 1998 version."


"With a tiered, skeletal set that suggests a majestic phantom railroad station, this 'Ragtime' puts the emphasis on people — as makers of history as well as its pawns — instead of what surrounds them.


Robert Petkoff, as Tateh, a Jewish immigrant, with Sarah Rosenthal as his daughter. "Terrence McNally's script and Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens's songs have a way of turning the shifting historical flux of Doctorow's novel into carefully diagrammed flow charts."


Savannah Wise plays the showgirl Evelyn Nesbit; Bobby Steggart, far right, plays Younger Brother.


Christopher Cox, standing, in the number "What a Game!"


"The expressive silhouette is this production's dominant leitmotif. It is used most literally by Ms. Dodge in her positioning of her large cast (of several dozen) as back-lighted, featureless outlines that slowly assume detail."


Quentin Earl Darrington, far right, plays Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem piano player. "The most obviously dramatic story is that of Coalhouse, who is transformed from gentlemanly musician to avenging revolutionary."


Stephanie Umoh as Sarah, Coalhouse's wife, in the number "The Wheels of a Dream." "In 1998 Coalhouse and Sarah were played by the rising stars Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald, powerhouse singers of natural charisma who dominated the show. Mr. Darrington and Ms. Umoh don't have that commanding presence, though they're more than adequate."


"Characters who remain mysteries to themselves in the novel are here allowed moments of self-analysis and self-explanation that Dr. Phil might applaud. So to present a bare-bones 'Ragtime' courts the danger of revealing how bare them bones are."


"Warmly acted and agreeably sung, this 'Ragtime' travels light. And if it still sometimes feels like an animated history lesson, delivered by a liberal but square teacher a shade too eager to make the past come alive, the show now neither drags nor sags under its big themes."

“Ragtime” has lost weight since it was last on Broadway. The judiciously pared-down production that opened Sunday night at the Neil Simon Theater is a sprinting sylph compared to the opulence-bloated show that went under the same name a decade ago.

 True, the songs in this musical, adapted from E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel about the reshaping of America in the early 20th century, still suggest anthems from a hymns-for-the-converted Weavers concert, reorchestrated for Broadway belters. Flattening and straightening the kinked currents of history that eddied through Mr. Doctorow’s book, “Ragtime: The Musical” is never going to be described as subtle.

Still, Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s appealingly modest new interpretation, which originated at the Kennedy Center in Washington, often finds within this work’s panoramic sweep an affecting, uneasy human soul largely missing in the 1998 version. That show, created to open the spanking-new Ford Center by the Mike Todd-style producer Garth Drabinsky, was a paean to the latest in theater technology, a sort of World’s Fair for the stage, that featured planes, trains, a full-size Model T and fireworks (to accompany the expression of love).

The Drabinsky “Ragtime” was as infatuated with its own mammoth scale and stagecraft as its early-20th-century characters were with the latest innovations in science. It was lovely to look at and sometimes to listen to, but you felt as if a big, fat dirigible — filled with overdressed partiers and a cargo of heavy messages — had landed on your head.

Such ostentation was perhaps appropriate for the late 20th century, but hardly fitting in the financially anxious days of the early 21st. Despite the vulgar shadow cast by the $50 million “Spider-Man” extravaganza in the making, scheduled to open next year, the trend on Broadway of late has been toward small productions of big musicals, particularly in revivals of Stephen Sondheim shows that put the emphasis on words and music as guides to human ambiguity.

“Ragtime” benefits from this less-is-more approach, but only to a degree. The show is hardly one of Sondheimesque complexity. Terrence McNally’s script and Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’s songs have a way of turning the shifting historical flux of Doctorow’s novel into carefully diagrammed flow charts. Characters who remain mysteries to themselves in the novel are here allowed moments of self-analysis and self-explanation that Dr. Phil might applaud. So to present a bare-bones “Ragtime” courts the danger of revealing how bare them bones are.

Ms. Dodge doesn’t avoid this pitfall. But with a top-drawer design team that includes Derek McLane (set), Santo Loquasto (costumes) and Donald Holder (lighting), she makes it clear that “Ragtime” never needed all that decorative baggage to tell its stories of three families of different ethnic and economic strata.

With a tiered, skeletal set that suggests a majestic phantom railroad station, this “Ragtime” puts the emphasis on people — as makers of history as well as its pawns — instead of what surrounds them. (The Model T, which is central to the story, appears here, too, but as a 3-D outline of a car.)

Warmly acted and agreeably sung, this “Ragtime” travels light. And if it still sometimes feels like an animated history lesson, delivered by a liberal but square teacher a shade too eager to make the past come alive, the show now neither drags nor sags under its big themes.

Ms. Dodge would appear to have taken her cue from a description in Mr. Doctorow’s novel about the silhouette portraits created by Tateh (Robert Petkoff), a newly arrived Jewish immigrant. “With his scissors,” Mr. Doctorow wrote, “he suggested not merely outlines but texture, moods, character, despair.”

The expressive silhouette is this production’s dominant leitmotif. It is used most literally by Ms. Dodge in her positioning of her large cast (of several dozen) as back-lighted, featureless outlines that slowly assume detail. Such tableau making is a well-worn trick in theater (and film) but appropriate to a work in which people are trapped in the visions of others, in seemingly fixed stereotypes.

Chief among those trying to break through these prisons of perceptions are three families. Father (Ron Bohmer), Mother (Christiane Noll), Mother’s Younger Brother (Bobby Steggert) and the Little Boy (Christopher Cox) find their sunny, complacent life in New Rochelle, N.Y., shadowed by the discovery of an abandoned black baby in their garden. That’s the offspring of Sarah (Stephanie Umoh), a young cleaning woman, and a Harlem piano player, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Quentin Earl Darrington), whose presence will disrupt Father and his family in far-reaching ways they could never have anticipated.

The third arterial story follows Tateh and his daughter (Sarah Rosenthal) and the odyssey that takes them from the squalor of Lower East Side tenements to the heights of the nascent film industry. On the sidelines — kibitzing, annotating and occasionally redirecting the plot — are quick-sketch historical figures like the showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (Savannah Wise), the escape artist Harry Houdini (Jonathan Hammond), the radical Emma Goldman (a rousing Donna Migliaccio) and the captains of industry J. P. Morgan (Michael X. Martin) and Henry Ford (Aaron Galligan-Stierle).

Whatever its flaws, Mr. McNally’s script is a marvel of compression and clarity. Ms. Dodge enhances these attributes (sometimes a bit too baldly) by arranging cast members on different levels of the set, allowing us to compare and assess each group, while waiting for their inevitable intersections. The most obviously dramatic story is that of Coalhouse, who is transformed from gentlemanly musician to avenging revolutionary.

In 1998 Coalhouse and Sarah were played by the rising stars Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald, powerhouse singers of natural charisma who dominated the show. Mr. Darrington and Ms. Umoh don’t have that commanding presence, though they’re more than adequate. Our attention shifts instead, with rewarding results, to characters I had previously regarded as underdrawn, those of Mother, Brother and Tateh.

 Ms. Noll, Mr. Steggert and Mr. Petkoff bring specific shadings of ambivalence to their roles that put bruisable flesh on silhouette figures and suggest the excited bewilderment of people looking for toeholds in a shifting landscape. Ms. Noll and Mr. Petkoff’s relationship, that of bizarrely attracted opposites, becomes the show’s most persuasive emotional through line. And Mr. Steggert, as a tentative rebel in search of a cause, provides a hot center of real pain.

Mr. Flaherty’s score, which weaves variations on the rag form throughout, gives the show a natural momentum and unity, though it occasionally veers into annoying repetitiveness. I’m still not bowled over by the full-throated, teary songs about hope and loss and the future that awaits us, with titles like “The Wheels of a Dream” and “Make Them Hear You.”

On the other hand, I have new respect for Mr. Flaherty’s use of ragtime as the aural embodiment of something fresh and unsettling in a stale and settled world. (James Moore is the sensitive music director.) “New Music,” a song in the first act in which Coalhouse first plays for Father’s family, allows you to hear each of the main characters responding in wondering counterpoint.

It’s a lovely, quiet moment, filled with expectation, apprehension and a sweet confusion. And it suggests that there were always moments of piercing sensitivity within “Ragtime.” Ms. Dodge’s production doesn’t disguise this work’s hearty preachiness, but it elicits glimmers of delicate beauty that got lost in the fireworks the first time around.

RAGTIME

The Musical

Book by Terrence McNally, based on the novel by E. L. Doctorow; music by Stephen Flaherty; lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge; music director, James Moore; sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Santo Loquasto; lighting by Donald Holder; sound by Acme Sound Partners; hair and wig design by Edward J. Wilson; orchestrations, William David Brohn; vocal arrangements, Mr. Flaherty; music coordinator, John Miller; associate director and choreographer, Josh Walden; general manager, John S. Corker; technical supervisor, Brian Lynch; production supervisor, Peter Lawrence. Presented by Kevin McCollum, Roy Furman, Scott Delman, Roger Berlind, Max Cooper, Tom Kirdahy/Devlin Elliott, Jeffrey A. Sine, Stephanie McClelland, Roy Miller, Lams Productions, Jana Robbins, Sharon Karmazin, Eric Falkenstein/Morris Berchard, RialtoGals Productions, Independent Presenters Network, Held-Haffner Productions, HRH Foundation and Emanuel Azenberg, in association with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Michael Kaiser, president; Max Woodward, vice president. At the Neil Simon Theater, 250 West 52nd Street, Manhattan; (877) 250-2929. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.

WITH: Ron Bohmer (Father), Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse Walker Jr.), Christiane Noll (Mother), Robert Petkoff (Tateh), Bobby Steggert (Mother’s Younger Brother), Stephanie Umoh (Sarah), Christopher Cox (the Little Boy) and Sarah Rosenthal (the Little Girl).
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