Theater Review

Theater review of "Ragtime" at Neil Simon Theatre

The Gang's All Here: The visually stripped down production of "Ragtime" remains a warm rendering of the E.L. Doctorow story.
The Gang's All Here: The visually stripped down production of "Ragtime" remains a warm rendering of the E.L. Doctorow story. (Joan Marcus Via Associated Press)

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By Peter Marks
Monday, November 16, 2009

NEW YORK -- Like many out-of-town arrivals to Manhattan, Broadway's new production of "Ragtime" has to make do with tighter quarters. The stage of the Neil Simon Theatre, where this invigorating revival opened Sunday night, doesn't accommodate Derek McLane's multi-level set quite as majestically as did the Kennedy Center's slightly more expansive Eisenhower Theater, birthplace last spring of this warm rendering of a musical that has at times in the past felt mechanical.

Some other forces of contraction have come into play in the move to New York, most lamentably in the absence of Manoel Felciano, who is not reprising his captivating turn as Jewish immigrant Tateh in the adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's beehive of a novel, set in the rapidly changing America of 1906. The loss of Jennlee Shallow as the doomed Sarah has also lowered the goose bump quotient by some noticeable degree.

And yet in most important ways, director Marcia Milgrom Dodge's economical staging retains the infectiously melodious appeal of the version that worked to such stimulating effect in the Eisenhower. Several of the carryover performers, in fact, have deepened their interpretations, especially Bobby Steggert as volatile Younger Brother, and the irresistible Christopher Cox, portraying the tiniest narrator, the Little Boy. In the swing-for-the-fences role of Coalhouse Walker Jr., Quentin Earl Darrington has also found his range, yielding up a character of even more confidence and vitality.

Best of all may be Christiane Noll, whose portrayal of Mother, the sheltered New Rochelle matron who emancipates herself from the stifling conventions for women of her time, now most affectingly embodies one of the musical's central conceits: the opening of America's minds to new peoples, new aspirations and, as "Ragtime" would have it, new music.

What's achieved here is confirmation that even if "Ragtime" is not a seminal American musical, it can be, via Terrence McNally's libretto and Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens's score, a very rewarding one, an impressive distilling of a panoramic novel and a moving account of the momentous currents of a turbulent age.

The intensive effort to lay bare the characters' emotional lives distinguishes this "Ragtime" from the original 1998 production, which in dramatizing Doctorow's intertwining plot of historical and fictional figures went in too heavily for pomp-laden spectacle. The fact-based personages -- from Henry Ford (Aaron Galligan-Stierle) to Evelyn Nesbit (Savannah Wise) to Booker T. Washington (Eric Jordan Young) -- still on this occasion seem like mere cardboard cutouts; only Donna Migliaccio's Emma Goldman comes across multi-dimensionally.

It's the made-up characters who feel real, the upper-middle-class whites, blacks from Harlem and immigrant Jews who ever more unavoidably bump up against one another. Composer Flaherty and lyricist Ahrens provide these characters with some of the musical's trademark rousing interludes, such as Coalhouse and Sarah's optimistic anthem, "The Wheels of a Dream." But they also apportion them tender songs like Tateh's "Gliding" and Coalhouse's "Sarah Brown Eyes." These softer melodies are essential to Dodge's more intimate approach, her attempt to bring down to human scale the tales of Tateh's artistic rise, Mother's feminist awakening and Coalhouse's radicalization.

In reducing the set to an intricate scaffolding and the props to metal shells -- Coalhouse's car and piano are skeletal, transparent -- "Ragtime" itself feels lighter, airier, relieved of some of its excess, period weight.

Ragtime, book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Costumes, Santo Loquasto; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Acme Sound Partners. With Robert Petkoff, Stephanie Umoh, Sarah Rosenthal, Dan Manning, Jonathan Hammond. About 2 1/2 hours. At Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St. Call 212-307-4100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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