Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Thrilling Times - Ragtime - Musical Review

Ragtime - Eisenhower Theater - The Kennedy Center - Washington, D.C. - ***** (out of 5 stars)
Premiered Apr 18 - Closed May 17, 2009. Transferred to Broadway:

Ragtime - Neil Simon Theatre - Broadway- New York, NY - ***** (out of 5 stars)
Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Book by Terrence McNally, Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, Directed and Choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Previews began on Broadway on October 23rd 2009, Opened November 15th 2009

The story may be about the collision of Blacks, Whites and immigrant Jews at the turn of the LAST century, just as the Henry Ford's Model T was coming into production, Evelyn Nesbit was the celebrity-du-jour, and Harry Houdini was mastering his tricks of illusion, but the timeless themes of love, peace and the problems of the industrial revolution on the lives of the actual people are just as relevant today (especially as our economy tries to adjust itself from years of greed) as they ever were.

Based on E.L. Doctorow's novel from the 70's looking back at the start of the 1900's, Ragtime is an epic story that intertwines the lives of a white family (simply named Father, Mother, Little Boy, Younger Brother, Grandfather) living in New Rochelle, a young black single mother Sarah and her ragtime singing musician suitor Coalhouse Walker Jr., and an immigrant Jew Tateh and his daughter (Little Girl) who has just arrived into New York in 1906. Real life characters like Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit, and unionist leader Emma Goldman figure into the lives of our Whites, Blacks and Jews.

It also makes for an epic musical, with one of the most beautiful scores by Stephen Flaherty and one of the best opening numbers (if not the best) in musical theatre where in a 10 minute opener, all the stories and characters are given a terrific introduction and all the themes are set in motion. The original Broadway production (that world premiered in Toronto) featured Broadway stars Brian Stoke Mitchell, Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie, Peter Friedman and a young Lea Michelle and was a truly epic production with full scale sets of everything imaginable, a working Model T, fireworks and everything else you can think of.

It was one of my favorite musicals of all time, and I'm lucky I got to see it a couple of times during it's Toronto pre-Broadway run. It's also one of the more "old-fashioned" musicals that top my list which usually consists of more modern musicals, but Ragtime is a wonderfully modern piece (written in the 90's) disguised as an old musical and probably why I think it works so well and feels so relevant still.

This new revival of Ragtime strips down the epic musical into a simpler production, but it reveals the deeper emotional core and makes the luscious musical even stronger. Director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge has taken away all the opulent set changes and with a new single three-tiered set by Derek McLane and lighting by Donald Holder, using a minimalist manner of storytelling, the entire production becomes even more theatrical yet more realistic at its core. By using the magic of our imagination, Dodge has forced us to deal with the emotional gravity at the centre of this show.

So while a red frame now represents the Model T, and a pipe staircase is used in various fashions, may look as a cheap alternative to building full out sets, it takes away all the superfluous decor so that we can concentrate on the characters at the centre of the play. It also gives it a more universal appeal by stripping away any specificities.

Since the Kennedy Centre production (my original review from DC), a few cast changes have been made (due to actors prior commitments) to the Broadway cast.

However, anchoring both cities, is Christiane Noll (ACE) as Mother, and who brings a warmth and delicacy to the role that really centers this production. Noll becomes a quiet powerhouse in a show that gives the flashier moments to the other characters, and Noll's performance is astounding in its soul searching arc (and hopefully will be rewarded come award season).

As Mother's Younger Brother, Bobby Steggert (above, 110 in the Shade) provides an emotional spark of anger and dismay that enhances Younger Brother's story. His disillusionment with his white status, and his growing concern and efforts to help others is powerfully affecting with Steggert's passionate portrayal and soaring voice.

While the original Broadway cast had the esteemed Brian Stokes Mitchell as the volatile Coalhouse Walker Jr., this time around, they found a very different actor, a big and burly Quentin Earl Darrington who thunders in as Coalhouse and creates a smooth but less princely character that works better with the story in the second act. Darrington is a powerhouse who is both charming and suave in that football playa' kind of way, and it gives the role a bit more grit and menace than Mitchell's sophisticated take.

Audra McDonald probably stole the show in the original Broadway cast, so whoever takes the role of Sarah, has huge shoes to fill. But Jennlee Shallow more than eased the fear that Sarah could not be filled, and created a sharp and strong willed Sarah as a response to her scared situation. Shallow's voice was full and strong and beautifully suited for the role. Unfortunately, Shallow was already signed on to the new Cirque Du Soleil Elvis show Viva Elvis and couldn't make the transfer to Broadway.

Filling the Sarah role on Broadway is newcomer Stephanie Umoh (above with Darrington) who does a nice job, but should ease into it better with some more heft into the performances (I saw it on the 3rd day of previews on Broadway) as she gets acquainted with her co-stars who have already been together for longer. Her performance is slightly more hesitant but she uses it to her advantage to create a frightened frail Sarah.

Manoel Felciano (above) played an exuberant Tateh in DC and his chemistry with Noll was palpable.

Robert Petkoff plays a more lovable cuddly Tateh on Broadway which I learned to appreciate and love as the show went on.

Leigh Ann Larkin (Gypsy, soon to be in the A Little Night Music revival) was a wonderfully tart Evelyn Nesbit in D.C.. Savannah Wise (above, Rock of Ages) takes over the role on Broadway and becomes a more cutesy Evelyn.

Ron Bohmer played Father both in DC and currently on Broadway and really finds a humanizing way to soften Father's arc from racist "upstanding" citizen to a sympathetic ally.

The rest of the HUGE cast (even though this is the paired down version) works well with Dodge's swift direction that moves the multiple stories along in a lean direction. It cuts the excess to the emotional core and makes Ragtime more thrilling and more relevant than ever before. The gorgeous orchestrations, the simple but grandiose tiered set are perfect to set in emotion a musical with so many winning songs, that I would pretty much have to name almost all the songs on the list.

Ragtime is getting a second chance on Broadway, and if the reception it got from the curtain rising on the night I saw it is any indication, this time, America might be ready to accept the hefty themes that form this epic musical about the turn of the last century that may hit a chord with our hearts at the turn of this current century.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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