Theater Review by Peter Marks: 'Ragtime' at the Kennedy Center

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 27, 2009

In its glorious opening tableau, "Ragtime" finds its purest, most exhilarating expression. To the Scott Joplin-style syncopation of the title song, the characters who compose the musical's three intertwining ethnic groups -- white Anglo-Saxons, blacks and immigrant Jews -- converge onstage to lay out the evening's conceptual thrust: the revolutionary changes coming to America circa 1906. "The music," as the characters put it, "of something beginning."

For the Kennedy Center's stirringly intelligent revival of the 1998 show, this beginning is indeed auspicious. Director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge arranges the huge cast, nearly three dozen strong, in formations that snake with goosebump-raising authority around the Eisenhower Theater stage. They're on a conga line to the future, the new pieces of a patchwork nation dancing inexorably into place.

More successfully than the lavish Broadway original -- a muscular melody machine that delivered ably on the rich-as-a-milkshake score but still left some theatergoers cold -- Dodge manages to make the idea of a turbulently evolving America the star. Perhaps as we've rounded the corner on another century, and the country is experiencing an acutely stressful testing of both its resolve and its way of doing business, a musical tracing the nation's core values strikes an even more resonant chord.

But despite its prescient survey of such relevant topics as immigration, racism, celebrity and capitalism, the adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's sprawling 1975 novel remains at times a victim of its own grand ambitions. The musical's parade of octave-scaling ballads, for instance, may have a salutary effect on the applause meter. But the swelling songs come to feel as if they are in competition with one another, and so some of the cumulative emotional impact is sacrificed.

And yet, this $4.4 million revival looks and sounds so good, the moments that prompt complaint are ultimately drowned out by sheer musicality. It's the best-sung show the Kennedy Center has mounted in years, and the choral numbers, like the gorgeous "New Music" and gospel-inflected "Till We Reach That Day," fill the auditorium with harmonies nothing short of heavenly. William David Brohn's orchestrations, voluptuously rendered by conductor James Moore and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, spoil you for the evenings to come when you must endure the equivalent of 98-pound-weakling accompaniments.

Dodge's ensemble is exceptionally well balanced; the show has been cast without brand names. (The original featured Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell.) That's not meant to suggest the production is devoid of exceptional turns. The revelatory Manoel Felciano in the role of Tateh, the penniless Latvian Jewish immigrant who ends up inventing a signature American art form, unearths a heretofore unexplored depth and sensuality. (Sarah Rosenthal, as his young daughter, strikes just the right mournful chord.) In the part of Mother, the archetypal frustrated suburban homemaker, Christiane Noll embodies a lovely sense of a trapped woman's awakening. (Christopher Cox, who plays her son, is a sharp little actor, too.) And Jennlee Shallow's Sarah, the story's martyred victim of racist brutality, proves to be a plaintive powerhouse.

For the in-the-spotlight role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. -- whose fiery reaction to Sarah's death propels the evening's central plot -- Quentin Earl Darrington has the necessary vocal artillery; he sings with Shallow a vibrant version of the crowd-pleasing "The Wheels of a Dream." Though he lacks some of Mitchell's menace and magnum-force magnetism, the deficit is turned to narrative advantage. "Ragtime" seems to work a bit better when the intermingling subplots, expertly knitted together by the librettist, Terrence McNally, are accorded equal weight. The notion of the musical's historical scope -- of individuals, fictional and real, caught up in the wave of the American Century -- gets more persuasive support.

The excellent efforts of set designer Derek McLane and lighting designer Donald Holder have ensured that this "Ragtime" evinces visual appeal. The action occurs on and around a soaring piece of architecture that looks like the skeleton of a turn-of-the-century mansion, with an assortment of fixed and movable stairs and ladders. The actors, illuminated in Holder's captivating reds and violets, appear on any of the structure's five levels, reinforcing the idea of a great American beehive.

In the interwoven stories, black, white and Jewish, the musical chronicles a moment at which the dominant culture is losing its exclusive grip and the nation is loosening up, becoming truly polyglot. A culture immersing itself in new ways of thinking is emerging, too, symbolized by the presence of historical figures, from intellectual heavyweights such as Emma Goldman (Donna Migliaccio) and Booker T. Washington (Eric Jordan Young), to wizards such as Henry Ford (Aaron Galligan-Stierle) and Harry Houdini (Jonathan Hammond), to tabloid sensations like the scandalous Evelyn Nesbit (Leigh Ann Larkin). All the costumes, by the way, are from the closet of the original Broadway production.

The spareness of the portable set pieces aids Dodge in her fluid staging; it's all in service to an era that itself is picking up speed. To lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty's period tempos, the actors perform in the unison of a newfangled assembly line, or dance the sensuous steps of a rag.

Because the myriad characters are drawn as emblems, it's a challenge to develop strong feelings for any of them. (A couple of numbers in the second act, like the comic-relief baseball number "What a Game!" come across as mere time-fillers.) In the major roles, Felciano is the most successful at conveying a flesh-and-blood personality. When he sings about his American success in "Buffalo Nickel Photoplay Inc.," the actor manages to pull back a curtain on the character's soul.

It's the soul of a nation, however, that "Ragtime" really wants you to see. And if your heartstrings are tugged by songs like "The Wheels of a Dream," it may be because this depiction of a young country struggling to overcome its flaws will have you too dreaming about better days to come.

Ragtime, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, book by Terrence McNally. Directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Costumes, Santo Loquasto and Jimm Halliday; sound, Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm; flying effects, Flying by Foy; music director, James Moore. With Bobby Steggert, Ron Bohmer, Dan Manning, Sumayya Ali, David Garry, Mark Aldrich. About 2 hours 50 minutes. Through May 17 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit or call 202-467-4600.

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