Thursday, October 29, 2009

Theater Review: Ragtime

Location: Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, NY, NY

Website: Official Ragtime site

Starring: Quentin Earl Darrington, Stephanie Umoh, Christiane Noll, Ron Bohmer, Robert Petkoff, Bobby Steggert

My Review: Confession: I’ve been familiar with the musical Ragtime for years, and love the show, so I was predisposed to enjoy it before even arriving at the Neil Simon Theatre for this new production. The original Broadway cast album has been on regular rotation in my music collection since becoming available in 1998 (first in my Discman, now on my iPod), and while I did miss seeing the original cast on Broadway (due to that whole pesky going to college thing), I caught a touring production several years ago that was excellent. So my main concern with this new production was whether or not it would measure up to the production that plays in my head whenever listing to the cast album. Luckily, my fears were put to rest at almost the instant the show began.

Right before the curtain lifted, my friend who attended the theater with me said, “I can’t remember the last time I saw a big musical like this.” And that’s essentially what Ragtime is: A big-ass musical. Over 40 cast members! A 20-piece orchestra in the pit! Scenery that takes up the entire stage! Grand-scale musicals like this seem to be appearing on Broadway less and less frequently, no doubt due to how expensive they are to produce, and after a number of flops over the years and the very public financial woes of the theater industry, producers seem to be playing it safe with smaller, less expensive shows with fewer bells and whistles. But when a big-ass musical is done well and touches the hearts and minds of the audience, the payoff can be huge. And that’s just what Ragtime should be looking forward to.

Based on the E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name, Ragtime takes a look at turn-of-the-century America (starting in 1906), using the stories of three very different families as its frame. There’s the white WASP-y family happily living an idyllically sheltered existence in New Rochelle, NY, a newly-arrived Jewish immigrant determined to be an American success story and make a new life for his young daughter, and the black ragtime piano player from Harlem trying to do right by the woman he loved and lost. What begins as three separate stories eventually gets tangled together, while some real historical figures observe, narrate, and occasionally participate in the narrative (including Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and Booker T. Washington). As the real characters mix with the fictional, so do real events (like the textile workers’ strike in Lawrence, MA) mingle with the imagined, creating a rich and textured look at a changing America as it rapidly approaches World War I.

With a cast this size, a multitude of stories being told, and a running time at just under three hours, there’s way too much happening in Ragtime to comment on everything, so here are some of the highlights:

While scenery is usually something I tend not to notice (which is usually a sign that it works with the show, because if it wasn’t working, it would be painfully obvious), but the Ragtime set is note-worthy because it works so extraordinarily well. The entire stage is rigged with skeletal-like metal scaffolding that has various staircases to help lead the characters to the various tiers that reach to the top of the stage. With the addition of a few props and a change of the lighting, the entire set is easily transformed into a ship, a suburban manor, a factory, a dance hall, and the Atlantic City boardwalk.

The entire cast works well together, but as with every show there are standouts. Bobby Steggert as Mother’s Younger Brother manages to straddle the line between “eager young man” and “loose cannon” so deftly that you’re never quite sure whether to root for him or be creeped out by him. Robert Petkoff as Tateh, the poor immigrant artist, goes through so many changes in the handful of scenes he appears in that it would be easy to play one too abruptly and ruin the illusion of his entire character. But Petkoff tackles the role brilliantly, and as he shifts from wide-eyed hopeful, to disillusioned and broken, to a self-made man, you believe every change and revel in his perseverance.

The main standout performances are by Quentin Earl Darrington and Stephanie Umoh as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and his love, Sarah—roles that were originated on Broadway by Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald, so to say they had big shoes to fill is a gross understatement. But everything they bring to their parts is perfect. Darrington has a confidant swagger when Coalhouse is playing his music in a dance hall, but he puts all of his pride aside to win back the woman he did wrong. Everything he does, he does with passion, and that passion can be channeled for good or evil, depending on which way the winds blow. Umoh is sweet and sassy as Sarah, a woman who is strong and determined, but still vulnerable enough to nearly destroy everything she has when her heart is broken. They both have killer voices, too, with each solo or duet they perform nearly bringing the show to a brief stand-still. The fact that Ragtime marks a Broadway debut for both of them is beyond remarkable.

Bottom Line: While big musicals are often sneered at as not being “legitimate theater” (insert your own Cats joke here), Ragtime proves that when done right, big musicals are indeed “legitimate” and very entertaining. Ragtime will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you think, and chances are you’ll leave the theater happily humming any one of its many tunes. If that’s not a “legitimate” theater experience, then I’ll happily continue to be a total theater bastard.

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