Saturday, November 21, 2009

Decent Doctorow Adaptation

Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Terrence McNally
Directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge

Starring Ron Bohmer, Quentin Earl Darrington, Christiane Noll, Robert Petkoff, Bobby Steggert, Stephanie Umoh, Christopher Cox, Sarah Rosenthal, Jonathan Hammond, Donna Migliaccio, Savannah Wise, Eric Jordan Young

Previews began October 23, 2009
Neil Simon Theatre
230 West 52nd Street

E. L. Doctorow’s classic novel Ragtime, a kaleidoscope of early 20th century America, has been adapted twice, with varying degrees of success. First was Milos Forman’s elegant but rarely eloquent 1981 film, followed in 1998 by the Tony-winning Broadway musical, a big but lumbering giant. Now we have the first Broadway revival a scant decade later. Terrance McNally’s book decently contracts Doctorow’s sprawling work to a manageable size, underlines Stephen Flaherty’s pastiche-laden score and Lynn Ahrens’ uneven lyrics.

Ragtime concerns Coalhouse Walker, ragtime pianist extraordinaire who takes revenge against the racist white community his beloved automobile is destroyed, followed soon by the killing of Sarah, the mother of his baby son. An upper-class family from upstate New Rochelle, whose matriarch takes in Sarah and her child, are thrown into the midst of the escalating events, not only concerning Coalhouse but also the many social and political changes launched out of New York.

Leaner and less bulky, this streamlined Ragtime makes a better case for the musical adaptation than the original production. Derek McLane’s dandy three-tiered set, which resembles the iron-wrought entrance to a turn-of-the-century exposition, is flexible enough to handle the frequent subplot, character and location changes. Objects figuring heavily in the plot, like a car and a piano, are also primarily symbolic, and are shown as mostly skeletal, a nicely theatrical touch.

Santo Loquasto’s outstanding costumes and Donald Holder’s buoyantly dramatic lighting also contribute mightily to Ragtime’s handsome period look. Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s directing comprises getting the right actors to center stage to play out their scenes, usually with other performers watching from the higher levels; her choreography, by contrast, runs effortless variations on this layout to accomplished effect, most notably in the first-act climax, in which several plot strands meet and collide compellingly.

The cast is better at singing than acting, which is only a hindrance when the performers step out of character to relate historical period facts or describe, in the third-person, what happens to the characters they play. McNally manages to shoe-horn many of Doctorow’s real-life personalities into the show: Henry Ford and Admiral Parry get one scene each, while Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman and Booker T. Washington figure prominently in the tragic story’s outcome.

Quentin Earl Darrington’s dynamic Coalhouse and Stephanie Umoh’s beautifully-sung Sarah have an onstage presence the others lack. Ron Bohmer’s Father and Christianne Noll’s Mother are competent but flavorless; Bobby Steggert’s fiery Mother’s Youngest Brother fares best from the New Rochelle family.

Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics catch the flavor of Doctorow’s writing at times; Stephen Flaherty makes an admirable stab at writing early 20th century music like ragtime, gospel, blues and hymns, and while he only partially succeeds, his strong vocal arrangements—the chorus is used in an almost operatic fashion—more than compensate.

Ragtime tells a great story well enough, which might not sound like a ringing endorsement, but for those underwhelmed by the original staging, the new version might change your mind about this serious-minded musical.
originally posted on

No comments: