Ragtime @ Neil Simon Theatre, New York

cast list
Mark Aldrich, Sumayya Ali, Terence Archie, Ron Bohmer, Corey Bradley, Jayden Brockington, Benjamin Cook, Christopher Cox, Carey Brown , Quentin Earl Darrington, Jennifer Evans, Aaron Galligan-Stierle, Jonathan Hammond, Carly Hughes, Lisa Karlin, Valisia LeKae, Dan Manning, Michael X. Martin, Michael McGowan, Donna Migliaccio, James Moye, Christiane Noll, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Mamie Parris, Bryonha Parham, Robert Petkoff, Nicole Powell, Kaylie Robinaccio, Arbender J. Robinson, Sarah Rosenthal, Benjamin Schrader, Wallace Smith, Bobby Steggert, Stephanie Umoh, Josh Walde, Catherine Walker, Jim Weaver, Kylil Williams, Savannah Wise, Eric Jordan Young

directed by
Marcia Milgrom Dodge
With one of the finest scores of the 1990s, it’s no surprise that Ragtime should be revived, though it’s surprising that its return to Broadway has come so soon after its 1998 premiere. Credit for this is due to director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, whose masterful production played earlier this year at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., welcomed with rave reviews that ensured a return to Broadway was nigh.

Working with a cast of about forty performers, Dodge brings a deft touch to a show much in need of sound direction. Condensed by playwright Terrence McNally from E.L. Doctorow’s novel by the same name, the musical is a sprawling, occasionally scattered piece of theatre that more often than not favors presentational narrative devices to textured playwriting. What carries the show is its sensational score by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, mixing ragtime and Tin Pan Alley, blues, European musical styles, cakewalk, and traditional theatre music to create a thrillingly appropriate pastiche for a show about the dawn of the twentieth century.

McNally manages to cram in most of the details of Doctorow’s story, which focuses on three distinct groups – the WASP population of New Rochelle, the Jewish immigrants of the Lower East Side, and Harlem’s black population. Historical characters mix and mingle with fictional ones; Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and others serve as figureheads for the time, deftly signifying the aspirations of the fictional characters on hand.
The musical begins by introducing its fast number of characters, soon shifting focus to Mother and Father’s comfortable white middle class family. After Father goes off on a polar expedition, Mother takes in an abandoned black child and the baby’s mother, Sarah, unwittingly courting the attention of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a black piano player who wants to bring Sarah back into his life after doing her wrong. Along the way, the story of immigrant Tateh and his daughter introduce the idea of aspirant dreams in American society, posing questions of whether violent or nonviolent struggle is more effective and whether safe living or bold living reap more bountiful rewards.

Director Dodge, aided by a towering metal set by Derek McLane, keeps the story tightly choreographed so that conflicting groups shift on and off – and intermingle – with perfect clarity. Exchanging the literal depiction of each literal action in favor of imaginative choreographed techniques – particular as concerns the trashing of Coalhouse’s car, the trigger of his eventual crime – bring a bold theatrical weight to the proceedings on stage. Dodge has the potential, with the drop of a handful of small American flags, to bring a tear into the eyes of audiences, so fine is her attention to small details.

Pleasantly, the Broadway company assembled to enact Dodge’s vision for the piece is similarly impressive. Christiane Noll brings a fierce sense of honesty to the role of Mother, who’s constantly striving to forge her own path within the confines of her marriage to Father. Robert Petkoff, particularly in his thrillingly jagged rendition of the song Success, brings a passionate determination to the role of Tateh, and Quentin Earl Darrington is a warm, sympathetic presence as Coalhouse, a role which must attract our sympathy but simultaneously challenge our assumptions about morality.

Back on Broadway, the flaws in Ragtime‘s construction remain challenges to be contended with. McNally’s dry narration hardly passes for dramatic zing, but Dodge does her best to mold the piece into something bigger and better than what’s on the page, respecting and magnifying Ahrens and Flaherty’s high-flying score. Thankfully, she succeeds.

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