nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
November 19, 2009
Within the first minute of Ragtime, my companion and I were both in tears. I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all—the giant skeletal set, the 40 actors in period costumes all singing at once—it is epic, huge, and exciting, and a musical of a scale and scope I haven't seen in a very long time. When Houdini appeared from the top of the proscenium, floating upside down from the rafters in a straitjacket, I couldn't hold it in anymore. Broadway can be magical, and Ragtime is awe-inspiring and beautiful, particularly the opening and closing numbers.
Ragtime, adapted by Terrence McNally from E.L. Doctorow's novel, is a sprawling story of different groups of people gradually intertwining as they live through the hope, excitement, and potential of the beginning of the 1900s. We follow four types of people—whites, blacks, immigrants, and historical figures (such as Booker T. Washington, J.P. Morgan, and Henry Ford). The show begins with each of the key characters introducing themselves (in the third person) through song. Mother, Father, The Little Boy, Mother's Younger Brother, and Grandfather are a Wasp family in New Rochelle. Cut to the Tempo Club in Harlem: Coalhouse Walker Jr. is a ragtime musician and Sarah is his lover, until she suddenly leaves him and his philandering ways. Next we're in the Lower East Side, where Tateh, a recent Jewish immigrant, is barely making ends meet selling silhouettes as he tries to support his Little Girl.
Worlds collide when one day Mother is in the garden and finds an abandoned baby. The police bring in Sarah, who has discarded her child. Father is on a yearlong expedition with Admiral Peary, and Mother decides to take Sarah and her baby in. Soon after, Coalhouse Walker Jr., the proud owner of a new Ford, finds where Sarah is staying and comes by every Sunday in an attempt to woo her back, all the while introducing the New Rochelle family to ragtime and the new era.
Marcia Milgrom Dodge does a beautiful job directing and choreographing Ragtime. Early on, when we are being introduced to the different groups of people, she has them all doing essentially the same dance but with just enough of a flair to highlight the cultural differences. The Wasps are rigid, bouncing up and down. The African Americans are smooth and loose with their bodies. The Jewish immigrants have their hands above their heads. It is one of the most poignant depictions of integration and assimilation I have seen—how can we find the way to dance the same dance together, but maintain our heritage. Exiting the theatre, I saw another audience member illustrating this to his companion. Dodge's stagings of the songs are incredibly strong. Not only are the group numbers staggeringly exciting, but the more intimate numbers are created with simplicity and honesty. In one number, Mother and Tateh are in Atlantic City, watching their unseen children play on the beach. There is little movement during the song "Our Children" but then both actors reach out as if their child has gone too far, both realize it was unnecessary, then realize they had done it simultaneously, then resume their composition. It is subtle and beautiful, and terrifically performed by Christiane Noll and Robert Petkoff. Bobby Steggert also gives a heartbreakingly endearing and honest performance as Mother's Younger Brother, a passionate young man trying to find his calling in the world. He goes from being smitten with a vaudeville actress to being willing to lay down his life for workers' rights and later black equality.
Derek McLane's scenic design is massive and skeletal. We are in the age of early industry. Even Coalhouse's piano is a skeletal piano frame that actor Quentin Earl Darrington is able to spin across the stage in a dizzying flurry of the new music. Donald Holder's lighting design is dramatic and colorful. In one scene, we are back in Atlantic City. It wasn't until after the show that I realized that I knew that solely because of how the lighting had shifted, though in my mind the set had changed. The only challenging technical aspect is the amplification. The singing sounded very distant and you couldn't feel the vibrations of the song. It was more like listening to a recording than being in the same room with 40 vocalists.
This revival of Ragtime does not leave you with any great nostalgia for a bygone era, but instead is all about hope and about how quickly the world can change; how we make our own futures. I find that very inspiring.