Anyone lucky enough to experience the dazzling Broadway revival of Ragtime will be hard-pressed to believe that in 1998, the musical was a $10 million financial flop, a critical miss, and an awards-season also-ran — it had the misfortune to open a few months after The Lion King. (And as if losing the Best Musical Tony Award to a super-pricey puppet show weren’t enough, Ragtime‘s producers flamed out in a very public accounting scandal. Just months ago, impresario Garth Drabinsky received seven years in prison for his part in a half-billion-dollar fraud scheme.)
More than a decade later, a leaner, less lavish, yet somehow even richer incarnation of the turn-of-the-20th-century-era musical has been neatly fitted into Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre. But this is no penny-pinching, recession-era Ragtime. Stephen Flaherty’s music — appropriately entrenched in the titular jagged, syncopated rhythms made so famous by the likes of Scott Joplin — gets the full 28-piece orchestra treatment. A cast of 40 — huge by today’s Broadway standards — portrays the colorful panoply of characters created by E.L. Doctorow in his 1975 historical novel, which Terrence McNally’s libretto has deftly distilled into three main story lines: the white New Rochelle, N.Y., elite, led by burgeoning liberal Mother (Christiane Noll), blatantly bigoted Father (Ron Bohmer), and Mother’s recalcitrant Younger Brother (Bobby Steggert); the just-off-the-”rag ship” immigrants like Latvian Jewish silhouette maker Tateh (Robert Petkoff) and his Little Girl (Sarah Rosenthal); and the men and women of Harlem, represented by ragtime musician-turned-militant rebel Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Quentin Earl Darrington), whose efforts to retrieve his love, Sarah (Stephanie Umoh), from Mother and Father’s home escalate into a shooting spree.
Various headline-making historical figures pop in and out along the way: revolutionary Emma Goldman (Donna Migliaccio), ”vaudeville tart” Evelyn Nesbit (Savannah Wise), educator Booker T. Washington (Eric Jordan Young), banker J.P. Morgan (Michael X. Martin), industrialist Henry Ford (Aaron Galligan-Stierle), escape artist Harry Houdini (Jonathan Hammond). It’s here that McNally’s skill as a playwright — and as an editor — truly shows: He cut down Doctorow’s crazy quilt of intersecting plotlines, smartly placing the real-life characters mostly on the musical’s outskirts.
Even Santo Loquasto’s stunningly detailed period costumes and accessories have been reinvented, with intricate layers of lace and pearlescent parasols for Mother, sequined come-and-get-it corsets and shimmery stockings for showgirl Nesbit. Apart from some small nips and tucks in the score, the only economizing is in the sets — or, rather, the set, singular. Derek McLane (33 Variations) has framed the entire stage in a series of exposed beams, tiers, and steps. Everything about this production is open (Coalhouse’s piano is a mere shell, as is his prized Model T) so that all it takes is a chord progression and a lighting cue to shift from a nightclub to a factory. The set’s tiers also signify class, dividing the immigrants from the African-Americans from the whites. (In the second act, note how Tateh and his daughter, he with a better-trimmed beard and she in a new dress, have risen to a higher level).
Dodge’s greatest strength as a director is keeping the actors moving, particularly in the glorious opening number, which hauls out practically every character in the proverbial melting pot: ”beggar and millionaire/everyone, everywhere/moving to the ragtime!” (In fact, her staging is so superior that one is inclined to forgive her insipid assembly-line choreography.) And she has corralled an almost uniformly first-rate ensemble: The barrel-chested Darrington is a booming, powerful Coalhouse who is physically and vocally different from his predecessor in the role, Brian Stokes Mitchell, but no less effective; Umoh, however, is simply not up to his level (at the performance I saw, she missed one too many notes in her wrenching aria ”Your Daddy’s Son”). And after years of playing the bland-and-blond ingénue in shows like Miss Saigon and Jekyll & Hyde, Noll has been rewarded with a career-making role and the show-stopping, 11 o’clock number ”Back to Before.” She’s brilliant, uncovering in Mother an unexpected (and alluring) edge: ”If I had dreams, then I let you dream them for me,” she sings almost resentfully.
And therein lies the biggest difference between the old and new Ragtime: edge. The opulent original production radiated an almost blinding streak of sun-soaked late-’90s optimism. This darker revival is by no means a bummer; it’s simply more grounded in reality. With its wonderful blend of nostalgia, anger, patriotism, and hard-won idealism, perhaps Ragtime is simply a better suited to 2009. Grade: A
(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 212-307-4100)