Monday, November 16, 2009

Ragtime


"Ragtime," Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's ambitious musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's epic 1975 tome interlocking the stories of rich white Protestants, less affluent African Americans and struggling Jewish immigrants at the turn of the previous century, is deservedly considered the last great musical of the 20th century. But why has it returned to Broadway so soon?

For starters, the original production was unfairly overshadowed by "The Lion King" and notoriously overproduced by now jailed impresario Garth Drabinsky at an oversized theater. But more importantly, Marcia Milgrom Dodge just happened to stage a thoroughly compelling, deeply felt revival last spring in Washington, DC that deserved a longer life. Under her warm direction, new moments of humor even turn up in Terrence McNally's book.

While the size of the cast and orchestra still match the original production, this revival emphasizes character detail and clarity over spectacle. Its three-story unit set of iron scaffolding and gothic arches allows the story to move fluidly alongside an evocative lighting design.

The cast is uniformly fantastic, marked by great performers offering sensitive acting and gorgeous singing. 23-year-old Stephanie Umoh is rather bland as Sarah, the role originated by Audra McDonald, but that hardly detracts from the show's overall emotional power.

As Coalhouse, the Harlem pianist whose dreams of a better life for his family are destroyed, Quentin Earl Darrington offers a physically powerful, pensive performance. Christiane Noll is lovely as the frustrated Mother and brings a yearning spirit to her ballads. Ron Bohmer brings a boyish charm to Father, who sadly cannot understand or accept the changes of the coming century. Bobby Steggert manages to stand out as Younger Brother, well-off but confused youth desperately looking for a cause to believe in.

"Ragtime" is a show about optimism in the face of prejudice and poverty and the bright possibilities of the future. As its ballads are sung with fiery emotional force, it's impossible not to find modern relevance in this stirring production.

Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., 212-307-4100, ragtimebroadway.com. Open run.

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