Friday, October 23, 2009

Ragtime's Syncopated Trip Back To Broadway

Ragtime Syncopated Trip Back To Broadway

Just under 10 years have passed since the musical Ragtime was last seen on the Great White Way. But thanks to the transfer of an acclaimed run earlier this year at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, it's officially back for its second time.

Previews start at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre this evening for the musical based on E.L. Doctorow's epic novel that's a slice right out of American history. The musical is told from three distinct vantage points spanning 1900 through the dawn of World War I. With score from Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, Ragtime features a book by Terrence McNally. The new production is helmed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge in her Main Stem directorial debut.

Before the turn of the last century, a very lavish Ragtime first opened on January 18, 1998 at what was then the brand spanking new Ford Center for the Performing Arts (now the Hilton Theatre). Quite apropos given that Henry Ford was among various historical figures (Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington and Emma Goldman) interspersed within the show. With Frank Galati at the helm, that production starred Peter Friedman as Tateh, Marin Mazzie as Mother, Brian Stokes Mitchell as Coalhouse Walker Jr., Audra McDonald as Sarah, Mark Jacoby as Father, and a very young Lea Michele.

Nominated for a whopping 13 Tony Awards, Ragtime would only win four, including for McDonald's supporting role, Flaherty and Ahrens' score, McNally's book and William David Brohn's orchestrations. The production played the Ford Center almost exactly two years, closing on January 16, 2000 after 834 performances. While you might think two years on the boards would translate to success, the show was anything but critically or financially.

The review from Ben Brantley of The New York Times was withering:
Blessed with beauty, ambition, a smashing wardrobe and a social conscience, Ragtime would seem to be the kind of musical that brings Broadway audiences to their knees in adoration. Then why does this $10 million show, which opened last night at the new Ford Center for the Performing Arts, feel so utterly resistible?

[T]he production has a correspondingly commemorative quality. A panoramic look at the beginning of this century from the perspective of its end, it often has the feeling of an instructional diorama in a pavilion at a world's fair.
No wonder Ragtime's biggest drama occurred off-stage. Notoriety ensued shortly after it opened when Livent, its production company, filed for bankruptcy. Foreshadowing things to come, Canadian producer Garth Drabinsky was indicted for fraud. Those charges are still pending.

This time around, there's hope that things will be dramatically better in every respect. After all, the show is a transfer from the Kennedy Center, where it received rave reviews. Ragtime's gargantuan cast of 40 is led by Christiane Noll as Mother, Robert Petkoff as Tateh, Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse Walker Jr., Stephanie Umoh as Sarah and Ron Bohmer as Father.

Coming full circle, I never saw Ragtime on Broadway, but I did manage to see the show during its first national tour stop at Washington's National Theatre in 1998. I remember being dazzled by both the production quality and the performances, but was less than wowed by the show itself.

Given the accolades the revival has received in my former hometown a little more than ten years later, I'm excited to see whether Dodge can make this Ragtime swing. Ragtime opens November 15.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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At 23 October, 2009, Blogger Bob said...

Did you see the original Frank Galati production of RAGTIME, SOB?

It was STUNNING. I saw it in Chicago when it was at the Oriental with LaChanze as Sarah, Hinton Battle as Colehouse, Barbara Walsh as Mother, etc.

Reviews don't do it justice.

At 23 October, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

I saw the first national tour in 1998 that I believe was still directed by Frank Galati (I no longer have my Playbill from the performance, sorry to say).

At 23 October, 2009, Blogger Bob said...

Yes, I think that was the stripped down version, reliant on wobbly sets and drop cloths. I saw that tour, too.

At 23 October, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

When did you see "the original Frank Galati" production in Chicago you described?

I'm very curious because the Broadway tryouts for Ragtime were in Toronto and LA. I saw the first stop on its first tour.

At 23 October, 2009, Blogger Bob said...

Gosh - I was a freshman in college. Made the trek to Chicago TWICE to see it. 1998. It played for a little over a year at the Oriental, after it was refurbished. A "sit-down" full production -- I believe produced by Livent -- complete with the giant stereopticon that lifts up into the flies at the beginning...never to be seen again throughout the rest of the show. So much money sunk into that original Eugene Lee design.

At 23 October, 2009, Blogger Bob said...

And by "original Frank Galati" production, I mean not the revised tour that went out after Livent went under.

At 23 October, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Regretfully, I only saw a touring production. But I do already have my tickets for the revival.

At 26 October, 2009, Blogger Linda said...

Though I saw and loved the L.A. production, I didn't know much about the troubled history of Ragtime, so that was interesting to read about. I saw it this weekend and overall I loved it, but you refer to the "gargantuan cast of 40"--I'm not sure how big the original cast was, but it felt smaller than it should.

At 26 October, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Linda, Relatively speaking, 40 is a pretty large cast. Thanks for letting me know about your experience in seeing it! How did it compare with what you recall from seeing it in LA?

At 27 October, 2009, Blogger Linda said...

I don't remember too many specifics about seeing it in L.A. I wasn't too familiar with theater actors back then, so I don't even remember who was in it, but I remember loving the production, especially the music. I loved the revival also, but I really missed the Model T, silly as that may sound. Overall it works, but as I said, this production just seems small for Ragtime. I hope you enjoy it when you see it.

At 27 October, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

No Model T???

Well, I'm hoping I enjoy as much as everyone else seems to be.


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