Ragtime -- Theater Review

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When it premiered on Broadway nearly a dozen years ago, the musical "Ragtime" had the misfortune to be overshadowed by the juggernaut that was "The Lion King." Despite winning Tonys for its book and score, the show didn't achieve the success it should have, and the fact that it was berthed in one of Broadway's biggest, least-inviting barns didn't help.

The revival, after a run at Washington's Kennedy Center, serves as a valuable reminder that this show, based on the classic E.L. Doctorow novel and featuring a gorgeous score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), is one of the best musicals of recent decades. It has been reborn in a magnificently stirring production that deserves to run for years.

Set in the early years of the 20th century, the story interweaves its fictional characters with a gallery of historical personages, including Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, Harry Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit. It is a mosaic of turn-of-the-century America, using the musical idioms of ragtime to literally underscore the social pressures engendered by the huge influx of immigrants and the racism endemic to the era.

Terrence McNally's book skillfully condenses the multiple narrative threads of Doctorow's sprawling tale, concentrating on three intersecting groups of characters: Tateh (Robert Petkoff), a penniless Russian Jewish immigrant desperate to protect his young daughter (Sarah Rosenthal); a wealthy WASP family living in New Rochelle consisting of Father (Ron Bohmer), Mother (Christiane Noll), their young son (Christopher Cox) and Mother's younger brother (Bobby Steggert); and Sarah (Stephanie Umoh) and Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Quentin Earl Darrington), a black couple whose travails fuel the increasingly melodramatic and violent plot line.

Director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge's presentational-style staging, performed on a multilevel scaffold set, is far less lavish than the original version. But it works beautifully, balancing the epic with the intimate and keeping the uncommonly large 40-member company in full view of the audience for long stretches.

It's almost unfair to compare the current, largely unknown company to their predecessors because the original Broadway production featured a dream cast, but the ensemble does justice to the material.

Among those who should be singled out are Noll, deeply moving as the emotionally starved Mother; Steggert, who brings real depths of shading to the radical leaning younger brother; and Darrington, who delivers a quietly powerful and beautifully sung turn as Coalhouse, whose turn toward violent anarchy after becoming the victim of a racially charged incident fuels the show's second act.

The ragtime flavored score is beautifully delivered, with the ensemble numbers achieving a powerful emotional resonance.

Venue: Neil Simon Theatre, New York (Runs indefinitely)
Cast: Ron Bohmer, Quentin Earl Darrington, Christiane Noll, Robert Petkoff, Bobby Steggert, Stephanie Umoh, Christopher Cox, Sarah Rosenthal, Jonathan Hammond, Donna Migliaccio, Savannah Wise, Eric Jordan Young
Book: Terrence McNally
Music: Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens
Direction-choreography: Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Scenic designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Santo Loquasto
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners
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