Sunday, November 15, 2009



Music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, book by Terrence McNally. Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Neil Simon Theatre. (CLOSED)

The original Broadway production of Ragtime is still fresh in the mind of most critics, though not always favorably. Marcia Milgrom Dodge's stripped-down version is for some an improvement over the grandiose original production as it turns the focus to the characters. A common theme in the reviews is that Ragtime is more timely now than it was in 1998. Those who loved the Flaherty/Ahrens score still love it and those who didn't still complain of it's overuse of anthems. The cast receives mostly positive reviews, but can't erase the memory of their predecessors, especially in the case of Stephanie Umoh and Quentin Earl Darrington as Sarah and Coalhouse Walker, Jr., originally portrayed by Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell.

NY1 A+
(Roma Torre) Ror all its virtues, Ragtime is not an easy show to stage. It requires a delicate balance combining textbook history with an emotional depth that touches both our heads and hearts. To say that this company got it right is an understatement. This "Ragtime" is one for the ages.

Lighting and Sound America A+
(David Barbour) Marcia Milgrom Dodge's gripping, highly intelligent, staging is at its considerable best in the details -- and, to my mind, that's as it should be. The rap on Ragtime is that it is a sprawling epic (if you like it), or a ponderous history pageant (if you don't). In truth, however, it's an astounding act of theatrical economy. Few ever seem to note how brilliantly Terrence McNally has carved a coherent, cohesive storyline out of E. L. Doctorow's complex novel, and how equally brilliantly Lynn Ahrens, the lyricist, and Stephen Flaherty, the composer, have exploited the opportunities McNally has handed them. This is made blazingly clear in the opening number -- one of the most brilliant curtain-raisers in modern Broadway history -- which introduces us to a dozen major characters and nearly as many themes, all tied to the profound changes rattling American society in 1906. The sight of the show's three main tribes -- WASP, black, and immigrant -- circling each other warily to lyrics that evoke "an era exploding/a century spinning," is so thrilling that you immediately fear that disappointment must follow.

Variety A+
(David Rooney) But despite its gifted cast and elaborate visual trappings, Frank Galati's original staging -- overseen with the bombast of a Barnum-esque showman by producer Garth Drabinsky -- somewhat smothered the characters' emotional journeys in spectacle. By stripping back the production frills yet retaining a grandeur appropriate to the sprawling story in Derek McLane's three-tiered, wrought-iron scaffold set, Dodge has made the focus more intimate, the sorrows more piercing and the joys more uplifting. But as much as the characters, it's the growing pains of a multicultural nation that become the production's pulsating center, swiftly communicated in a stunning opening tableau and in the exhilarating title number that follows... Some may quibble that Flaherty's score overplays its hand with its succession of emphatic anthems, but shuffled among those numbers are more delicate songs of introspection and yearning that bring the show gently back to earth from its many soaring peaks. Under Dodge's assured direction, the impeccable cast plays that balance like perfectly tuned instruments.

Bergen Record A+
(Robert Feldberg) Watching the vivid, stirring, lovingly staged revival of "Ragtime," I had the thought, "This time they got it right." When it debuted, with much ballyhoo, nearly 12 years ago, the musical based on E.L. Doctorow’s best-selling novel about America at the turn of the 20th century was stately and handsome, and had all the emotional immediacy of a museum exhibit. The revival, which opened Sunday at the Neil Simon Theatre, uncovers the compelling musical that had been hidden beneath the original’s massive sets and stilted presentation. Thanks to director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, working with inspired designers and a superb cast, "Ragtime" can take its place as a major American musical.

Show Showdown A+
(Cameron Kelsall) The cast, from top to bottom, is perfection and quite often made me forget their predecessors (high praise indeed), but three individuals deserve special mention: Robert Petkoff, an ideal Tateh; Bobby Steggert, who manages to capture Younger Brother's idealism without making him seem overly quixotic; and Christiane Noll, whose brilliant Mother emerges as a rational, highly intelligent woman stifled by the society in which she lives. To watch her transformation from idyllic homemaker
to independent proto-feminist was nothing short of astonishing.

The Toronto Star A+
(Richard Ouzounian) Something else was working against this majestic show as well. We were all existing in a period of relative complacency, not needing or wanting to hear about how fragile the threads were that tied us all to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But oh, how the world has changed since that time. Just look at the following words that had no meaning for us then, but now can make us all shudder with terror: Columbine, 9/11, Weapons of Mass Destruction, Katrina ... the list goes on and on. No wonder some reviewers condemned the work back then for its anthemic qualities and derided it as sentimental and patriotic. Americans were more interested in pursuing Mr. Clinton's destiny following Lewinskygate than re-examining the overall nature of the world they had created a century before. That's why this Ragtime has such pertinence and punch. When Coalhouse Walker Jr. now threatens urban terrorism, we know what it means. When hooded fanatics with explosives lay siege to civic landmarks, it rings all too true.

Entertainment Weekly A
(Melissa Rose Bernardo) Santo Loquasto's stunningly detailed period costumes and accessories have been reinvented, with intricate layers of lace and pearlescent parasols for Mother, sequined come-and-get-it corsets and shimmery stockings for showgirl Nesbit. Apart from some small nips and tucks in the score, the only economizing is in the sets — or, rather, the set, singular. Derek McLane (33 Variations) has framed the entire stage in a series of exposed beams, tiers, and steps. Everything about this production is open (Coalhouse's piano is a mere shell, as is his prized Model T) so that all it takes is a chord progression and a lighting cue to shift from a nightclub to a factory. The set's tiers also signify class, dividing the immigrants from the African-Americans from the whites. (In the second act, note how Tateh and his daughter, he with a better-trimmed beard and she in a new dress, have risen to a higher level). Dodge's greatest strength as a director is keeping the actors moving, particularly in the glorious opening number, which hauls out practically every character in the proverbial melting pot: ''beggar and millionaire/everyone, everywhere/moving to the ragtime!'' (In fact, her staging is so superior that one is inclined to forgive her insipid assembly-line choreography.)

Newsroom New Jersey A
(Michael Sommers) The intricate libretto and score have been trimmed a trifle, but Flaherty's music is gloriously rendered by a 28-piece orchestra. Soaring anthems such as "The Wheels of a Dream" and the surging title number are unforgettable stuff and the musicians and vocalists do them justice. If this "Ragtime" does not match the visual opulence and the depth of talent boasted by the stunning original production, it comes darned close. Anyone who's never before seen "Ragtime" is likely to be blown away by the experience, while everybody else will thrill once more to the work's dramatic sweep and musical majesty.

TheaterMania A
(David Finkle) There's no point hammering away at the high quality of the ragtime-infused and heartfelt score (which has undergone only minor revisions since the show's original Broadway production) or harping on the fact that it has one too many plant-your-feet-on-the-stage-and-declaim anthems. Likewise, there's no point to singing the cast's praises at length, although they uniformly perform with fervor reflecting a nation struggling sometimes thrillingly, sometimes shabbily to attain equilibrium. Among the standouts are Darrington, who has the force of a steam-engine, Noll, who acutely embodies Mother's pre-feminist determination, and Umoh, Petkoff, and Bobby Steggert (as Mother's Younger Brother), who brim with joy and pain.

Backstage A
(David Sheward) In a season full of star vehicles, the revival of "Ragtime" rides onto Broadway with nary a box-office name and steamrollers its way to the top of the heap. Marcia Milgrom Dodge's stripped-down production, transferred from a hit engagement in Washington, D.C., imparts the musical's sweep of history and the intimate story of lives caught up in a ceaseless movement of events. The original 1996 production was a vast pageant on the enormous stage of the Ford Center (later renamed the Hilton Theatre). Now, in the relatively more intimate Neil Simon Theatre, Milgrom's staging focuses on the interactions of three families coping with rapid changes in the American landscape at the dawn of the 20th century. Though that first production remains fresh in my mind, this edition finds new spark and vibrancy.

The Hollywood Reporter A
(Frank Scheck) The revival, after a run at Washington's Kennedy Center, serves as a valuable reminder that this show, based on the classic E.L. Doctorow novel and featuring a gorgeous score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), is one of the best musicals of recent decades. It has been reborn in a magnificently stirring production that deserves to run for years... Director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge's presentational-style staging, performed on a multilevel scaffold set, is far less lavish than the original version. But it works beautifully, balancing the epic with the intimate and keeping the uncommonly large 40-member company in full view of the audience for long stretches.

Lighting & Sound America A
(David Barbour) Marcia Milgrom Dodge's gripping, highly intelligent, staging is at its considerable best in the details -- and, to my mind, that's as it should be. The rap on Ragtime is that it is a sprawling epic (if you like it), or a ponderous history pageant (if you don't). In truth, however, it's an astounding act of theatrical economy. Few ever seem to note how brilliantly Terrence McNally has carved a coherent, cohesive storyline out of E. L. Doctorow's complex novel, and how equally brilliantly Lynn Ahrens, the lyricist, and Stephen Flaherty, the composer, have exploited the opportunities McNally has handed them. This is made blazingly clear in the opening number -- one of the most brilliant curtain-raisers in modern Broadway history -- which introduces us to a dozen major characters and nearly as many themes, all tied to the profound changes rattling American society in 1906. The sight of the show's three main tribes -- WASP, black, and immigrant -- circling each other warily to lyrics that evoke "an era exploding/a century spinning," is so thrilling that you immediately fear that disappointment must follow.

On Off Broadway A
(Matt Windman) 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.

The Daily News A-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Same goes for Flaherty and Ahrens' stirring score. It has moments of true magic. But it has issues, too. There are so many anthems that it becomes a power-ballad pileup and a case of diminishing returns. A song like "What a Game!" — a bouncy baseball ditty featuring Bohmer and the crowd-pleasing Christopher Cox as his son — is a welcome change of pace. A song without ... that ... last ... big ... note. Petkoff and an outstanding Noll sing "Our Children," a simple tune I've never thought much of. Here, it has such nuance and understanding it's an unexpected highlight. In it, their characters have an awakening about themselves, each other and the future. For a show that sings that "you can never go back to before," it seems exactly right.

Bloomberg News A-
(John Simon) The original production had a combination of realistic and whimsical scenery by Eugene Lee. The revival has a spectacular three-tiered unit set that suggests the main pavilion of some World’s Fair on which the brilliant designer Derek McLane works minor changes for different locations that -- except for ships at sea and a baseball game -- work very nicely. Santo Loquasto, the original costume designer, again provides jaunty costumes and Donald Holder contributes versatile lighting including some fetching shadow play. Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s staging is generally effective, though her choreography is somewhat less inventive than Graciela Daniele’s back in 1998.

Show Showdown B+
(Wendy Caster) The minimalist design mostly works, but the car should be a car and the piano should be a piano. Marcia Milgrom Dodge keeps the show moving like Henry Ford's assembly line (which is mostly a good thing) and nails the opening number, which is as thrilling as it should be. The ensemble members work their butts off, playing so many roles and having so many costume changes that the friend I saw it with said the dressers should get a bow. On a whole, the somewhat uneven production has many more strengths than weaknesses, and the 30-person orchestra sounds wonderful. And the point really is the score, that glorious, glorious score.

The Village Voice B+
(Michael Feingold) Ragtime's shortcomings have been much debated since its disappointing initial run. What's less well remembered, which Marcia Milgrom Dodge's new production successfully arouses, is the sense it gives of being in that musical heaven where the artists do everything right. About half the Ahrens-Flaherty score comes into this category. Dodge's production—barer, starker, and smaller than Frank Galati's original—enhances the work's tautness by linking its criss-crossed stories more sharply, and pushing for heightened tensions in Terrence McNally's book, which, as a result, seems less mild-mannered than it did, less of a problem-solving task in adaptation and more of a drama. That approach has dangers attached. Push, and you sometimes get coarser results; tighten, and you put extra pressure on the weak links.

Associated Press B
(Michael Kuchwara) What made the original so enticing was not so much the lavishness of its setting but the impeccable casting that anchored the show and which made stars out of such performers as Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie. In this revival, the actors are not quite as accomplished in creating credible portraits even though Dodge has given them more breathing space in which to come alive... What remains most memorable about "Ragtime" is its score: Stephen Flaherty's outpouring of melodies, tunes that encompass not only the sounds of the show's title but a whole range of musical expression from hymns to cakewalks to a bit of vaudeville razzle-dazzle. One song in particular, the haunting "New Music," neatly encompasses the ardent relationship between Coalhouse and Sarah and the unraveling of the bond between Mother and Father (an appropriately stuffy Ron Bohmer).

Washington Post B-
(Peter Marks) Like many out-of-town arrivals to Manhattan, Broadway's new production of "Ragtime" has to make do with tighter quarters. The stage of the Neil Simon Theatre, where this invigorating revival opened Sunday night, doesn't accommodate Derek McLane's multi-level set quite as majestically as did the Kennedy Center's slightly more expansive Eisenhower Theater, birthplace last spring of this warm rendering of a musical that has at times in the past felt mechanical. Some other forces of contraction have come into play in the move to New York, most lamentably in the absence of Manoel Felciano, who is not reprising his captivating turn as Jewish immigrant Tateh in the adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's beehive of a novel, set in the rapidly changing America of 1906. The loss of Jennlee Shallow as the doomed Sarah has also lowered the goose bump quotient by some noticeable degree. And yet in most important ways, director Marcia Milgrom Dodge's economical staging retains the infectiously melodious appeal of the version that worked to such stimulating effect in the Eisenhower.

USA Today B-
(Elysa Gardner) As a work of social commentary, Ragtime, introduced on Broadway in 1998, is hokey and pedantic, much like that other, plodding musical adaptation of historical fiction, Les Misèrables. Ragtime's unabashed sentimentality is more compelling, though, thanks to the relative wit and grace of its creators. The score, composed by Stephen Flaherty with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, is hardly A-list, but the songs are well-crafted and on occasion are genuinely soulful. And Terrence McNally's book tugs at your heart and conscience with such artful aggression that only an ogre could resist the urge to weep at some points and smile at others... Warmly acted and agreeably sung, this “Ragtime” travels light. And if it still sometimes feels like an animated history lesson, delivered by a liberal but square teacher a shade too eager to make the past come alive, the show now neither drags nor sags under its big themes.

The Faster Times B-
(Jonathan Mandell) It is a vertiginous mix, simultaneously dark and hopeful, violent and sweet, as punchy as an action comic and as grave as an opera. The musical’s book by Terrence McNally did, and does, the job you would expect from the playwright of such gems as “Master Class” in navigating around these varying tones and compressing the page for the stage. The lyrics by Lynn Ahrens are in turns clever and moving. The music by Stephen Flaherty is often tuneful. The musical, however, is called “Ragtime”, yet with the exception of the title song and a few others, the songs are not light and tinkly, neither playfully convoluted rags nor “Tea for Two”-type period pieces. They are not from the 1900’s but from the 1990’s, the era of the megamusical, heavy ballads and full-out anthems. If you have the CD or otherwise know the score already, and this music appeals to you, there is no reason to stay home; many reasons to go. The cast does it full justice, especially Christiane Noll as Mother.

Wall Street Journal B-
(Terry Teachout) Santo Loquasto's resplendent costumes will be a shoo-in at Tony time. The cast is quite good but not breathtakingly so, which is more or less what I'd say about the production as a whole—though those who know the show only from the overblown, overdesigned 1998 Broadway production may well find this revival to be revelatory. Me, I liked it just fine, and I wholeheartedly commend it to anyone who loves "Ragtime."

Time Out New York C+
(Adam Feldman) There is much to enjoy about it: Stephen Flaherty’s music, played by a rich-sounding orchestra, is often transporting, especially in the stirring opening number; Dodge’s crisp staging on Derek McLane’s elegantly skeletal set gives her actors—notably the compelling Christiane Noll as the conflicted Mother—a chance to stamp their roles with personality. But although the musical has been faulted for its distancing style (the characters often describe themselves in the third person), Ragtime falters most when it departs from that distance and snowballs into preachy anthems. When the audience applauds Mother’s Younger Brother (an aptly intense Bobby Steggert) for telling off the complacent industrialist Father (Ron Bohmer, in a dismissively written role), it seems to be clapping for its own liberal virtue.

The New York Times C+
(Ben Brantley) “Ragtime” benefits from this less-is-more approach, but only to a degree. The show is hardly one of Sondheimesque complexity. Terrence McNally’s script and Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’s songs have a way of turning the shifting historical flux of Doctorow’s novel into carefully diagrammed flow charts. Characters who remain mysteries to themselves in the novel are here allowed moments of self-analysis and self-explanation that Dr. Phil might applaud. So to present a bare-bones “Ragtime” courts the danger of revealing how bare them bones are. Ms. Dodge doesn’t avoid this pitfall. But with a top-drawer design team that includes Derek McLane (set), Santo Loquasto (costumes) and Donald Holder (lighting), she makes it clear that “Ragtime” never needed all that decorative baggage to tell its stories of three families of different ethnic and economic strata.

Newsday C
(Linda Winer) "Ragtime" dwindles, as it has always dwindled, ever since its controversial premiere, so obsessively assembled and overproduced by impresario Garth Drabinsky (recently convicted in Canada of fraud and forgery). Precision craftsmanship in the first act turns bland and earnest, just when the stakes are highest. As the material gets tough, Terrence McNally's cleaned-up, de-sexed adaptation of Doctorow's heavily erotic, subtly political fiction goes into sincerity-overload, while composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens turn from canny period-pastiche to poperatic ballads and bloated anthems. It is then that the fine intentions of this astute production can no longer mask the limitations of the cast, which is more capable than individually remarkable. As an ensemble, especially in the haunting and syncopated choruses, the company works beautifully.

New York Post C-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Derek McLane's towering three-tiered set evokes a steel beaux-arts cathedral, as if to say, "We're dealing with important stuff here." Along with two essential props (a Model T and a piano reduced to their skeletal frames), it also signals that the show intends to look at America's very bone structure. Don't expect an X-ray -- "Ragtime" is more about XXL bathos. Where Doctorow was dry and cerebral, bookwriter Terrence McNally seems to have never seen a heartstring he didn't want to pluck. This is compounded by Marcia Milgrom Dodge's staging. She has a great eye and comes up with many gorgeous, painterly compositions (greatly enhanced by Santo Loquasto's inventive costumes), but she also tends to soften the story's harsher aspects. Some of the best scenes are the lighter, most tender ones, especially when they involve Noll, wonderful as a suburban wife whose corset can't restrict her kindness.

Talkin' Broadway F
(Matthew Murray) This is not “the era exploding, the century spinning” that the lyrics promise, but static and makeshift people moving that doesn’t propel us into the stories of how Coalhouse finds and loses love and then enacts bloody revenge, how Mother frees herself from the psychological confines of her restrictive marriage, and how Tateh moves from poor artist to filthy-rich filmmaker. Without that initial forward motion, the show can do little but lurch for well over two and a half hours. Milgrom Dodge has tried to correct for this by slashing many scenes and songs to bits - I noticed significant internal cuts in at least nine numbers. But most of the sections she leaves intact aren’t much better... These changes all identify Milgrom Dodge’s attempts to wrangle the show down to manageable size. But all they do is sap the power and passion from a story that need them operating at full strength from beginning to end. Worse, she’s demanded the same of the performers, many of whom make no impression at all.

NY1 A+ 14; LSA A+ 14; Variety A+ 14; The Bergen Record A+ 14; Show Showdown A+ 14; The Toronto Star A+ 14; EW A 13; Newsroom New Jersey A 13; TheaterMania A 13; Backstage A 13; The Hollywood Reporter A 13; Lighting & Sound America A 13; On Off Broadway A 13; The Daily News A- 12; Bloomberg News A- 12; Show Showdown B+ 11; The Village Voice B+ 11; AP B 10; Washington Post B- 9; USA Today B- 9; The Faster Times B- 9; Wall Street Journal B- 9; TONY C+ 8; The New York Times C+ 8; Newsday C 7; New York Post C- 6; Talkin' Broadway F 1; TOTAL: 297/27= 11(B+)

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