Ragtime

Now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway.

The ambition of Ragtime is astonishing. It’s one thing to create a musical from a simple, straightforward movie, an animated comedy or some such, but to use E. L. Doctorow’s sprawling, provocative epic novel as source material is something else entirely. So much do I admire the creators of Ragtime for setting their sights so high that I’m usually willing to forgive the moments when they fall short—and they do. Ragtime has considerable flaws: often bombastic orchestration, awkward pacing in the second act, an overly rosy ending. But these are worth setting aside in appreciation of the musical’s strengths: incisive writing; gorgeous, meaningful songs; heartbreaking drama deftly leavened with humor and irony. It’s not perfect, but it’s eloquent and memorable—something special.

Following Doctorow’s lead, writer Terrence McNally and lyricist Lynn Ahrens weave together the lives of Americans—both real and fictional—from different races, classes, and backgrounds in the early twentieth century. Members of a wealthy white family begin to leave their sheltered lives in Westchester County, New York, when the unnamed Father (Ron Bohmer) tags along on an arctic expedition, leaving Mother (Christiane Noll), their Little Boy (Christopher Cox), and Mother’s Younger Brother (Bobby Steggert) to fend for themselves. Meanwhile in New York City, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Quentin Earl Darrington), a black ragtime musician from Harlem, resolves to regain the affections of Sarah (Stephanie Umoh), the woman he wronged but still loves. And a Jewish immigrant from Latvia who goes by Tateh (Robert Petkoff) struggles to make a life for himself and his Little Girl (Sarah Rosenthal) in the slums of the Lower East Side. Sprinkled into their entwined stories are appearances from historical figures such as explorer Robert Peary, educator Booker T. Washington, anarchist Emma Goldman, escape artist Harry Houdini, industrialists Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan, and early tabloid queen Evelyn Nesbit.

In moving the huge cast from the pages of a thick, dense book to a few brief hours on stage, the musical’s creators have done some simplifying. The conflicts are neatly diagrammed, most of the characters easily boxed. The big solos—what amount to sung interior monologues—often spell things out pretty explicitly, but Ahrens achieves moments of surprising poetry there. As Sarah, Umoh doesn’t quite have the power to slam home “Your Daddy’s Son” (it might not be fair to compare Umoh to the glorious Audra McDonald, who created the role, but if you’ve heard McDonald sing, it’s impossible not to), yet the lyrics are still wrenching as her character struggles to articulate why she left her newborn son for dead. Noll, a stronger singer, gives a bravura performance with “What Kind of Woman” and “Back to Before,” two songs that powerfully convey Mother’s awakening to her own moral responsibility. And “He Wanted to Say,” a duet between Coalhouse and Younger Brother mediated by Emma Goldman, never fails to move me with its depiction of floundering idealism and violence as a terrible substitute for real communication.

This new production, a neatly stripped-down version of the 1998 original, finds similar poetry in the staging. Too often, Ragtime tells rather than shows, but director Marcia Milgrom Dodge finds ways to do the more artful opposite. The platforms of the stark three-tiered set sometimes suggest stratified class structures, and in the beautifully choreographed opening number, dance conveys the clashing relationships and rhythms among the people of Westchester, Harlem, and the Lower East Side.

At its best, Ragtime poignantly portrays how people react to swift social change—digging in their heels and adapting, failing and succeeding—but it can also be uncomfortably sentimental. “Our Children,” Mother and Tateh’s duet about the oh-so-prophetic friendship of the Little Boy and the Little Girl, is a trite, cloying embarrassment, and to my ears, the willfully anthemic “Make Them Hear You” fails to reach the inspirational greatness for which it so nakedly strains. Composer Stephen Flaherty, so nuanced in quieter passages, has a tendency to repetitively bang out his big climaxes, and his finales suffer for it—too much, too much, too much.

But even the mawkish epilogue can’t diminish my enjoyment of what comes before it. Mother, Younger Brother, and Coalhouse are enormously compelling characters, and Noll, Steggert, and Darrington bring them to convincing life (though it must be said that Noll is more of a singer than an actor and Steggert the reverse). Using Goldman, Houdini, Nesbit, and the rest to foreshadow anxieties in America beyond the Ragtime era might be Doctorow’s device, but it’s no less effective in the musical. And for every syrupy, paint-by-numbers ballad, there’s a lucid, penetrating number, the darkly funny “The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square,” for example, or the gentle, lilting “New Music.” It’s in those songs that Flaherty and Ahrens really shine, finally living up to the depth of Doctorow’s ragtime metaphor with musical flair, lyrical verve, and undeniable heart.

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The time that passed between the day I started this post and the day I actually completed it is embarassing, but that’s what happens when I try to write over the holidays. My apologies and a belated Happy Thanksgiving to all reading this!