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A CurtainUp Review
The DC Revival of Ragtime Makes a Welcome Move to Broadway
By Elyse Sommer

you can never go back to before— from "The Children."
Quentin Earl Darrington and cast
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
If I had to name my most exhilarating and unforgettable theatrical experience of the 1998 season, it would unquestionably be Ragtime, the musical adaptation of E. L. Doctorow's novel of the same name. Fast forward ten years. This melodically diverse and story rich classic American musical is back. Same thrilling mix of American musical styles, especially the catchy rag rhythms. Same smart, story propelling lyrics. Same smoothly interwoven saga of three families between the turn of the century and the first World War. New director and cast and —hurrah! hurrah!— it's better than ever! In fact, some of the quibbles I had with the original, now seem irrelevant.

In short, this revival, as brilliantly reconceived by director/choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, is even better than the original. It may not have the lavish scenery of the 1998 premiere, but that scenery works splendidly to support the new production's emphasis on E. L. Doctorow's character rich story. I couldn't agree more with what Susan Davidson had to say about this adept and apt new staging when she saw it at the Kennedy Center. Kennedy Center Review.

And don't let what you hear about this being a streamlined production fool you. While this Ragtime relies on one basic set and takes its prop cues from the immigrant Tateh's silhouette picturess, this is still a full-bodied Broadway show with a 40 strong cast and a 28-piece orchestra in the pit. A far cry from the downsized fare that is common on Broadway these days. Santo Loquasto's costumes (a holdover from the 1998 production), are once again mouthwateringly beautiful and character defining.

Derek McLane's versatile and extraordinarily effective multi-level iron rail set that frames the action fits the Neil Simon's stage and the truly thrilling opening tableau that is so good that it seems impossible that what follows can live up to it. Donald Holder's lighting is an enormous aide in evoking the various locations. And, wonderful as the 1998's cast was (Marin Mazzie, Peter Friedman, Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, to name just a few), no complaints about this revival's cast. It sparkles with talent.

Happily most of the key players have made the move from DC to Broadway. Christianne Noll's Mother continues to lend her lilting soprano to the woman who is more than ever the emotional center of the story. Quentin Earl Darrington is a powerful enough for Coalhouse Walker Jr. to be as career boosting for him as it was for Brian Stokes Mitchell. Christopher Cox is more irresistible than ever as Mother's little boy, and Bobby Steggert is terrific as her revolution-smitten younger brother. I could go on, but enough said — everyone, whether in a major or minor role, is superb.

Inevitably, a transfer from one city to another brings some cast changes. Not having seen the Kennedy Center production, I can't compare the actors who have joined the cast on Broadway with the ones Susan Davidson saw. The main changes are Stephanie Umoh who now plays Sarah and Robert Petkoff who plays Tateh. Umoh is beautiful and sings well though she doesn't make quite as strong an impression as Darrington's Coalhouse. Robert Petkoff is touching and charismati,c both as the impoverished artist trying to feed his beloved child and in his metamorphosis into a silent movie making tycoon who has reinvented himself as a Baron. He and Noll have wonderful chemistry so that the romance that blooms between them is believable from their exquisite first meeting duet at the New Rochelle railroad station.

Actually Ragtime proved its ability to soar with a more modest staging twice, this year — at the off the beaten path Astoria Arts Center as well as the larger, more high profile revival that has now led to its very welcome and wonderful return to Broadway.

Current Production Notes:
Ragtime, based on the novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens

Directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Cast (newly cast main players preceded by *): Ron Bohmer (Father), Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse Walker, Jr.), Christiane Noll (Mother), *Robert Petkoff (Tateh), Bobby Steggert (Mother's Younger Brother), *Stephanie Umoh (Sarah) with Christopher Cox (The Little Boy), Sarah Rosenthal (The Little Girl), Mark Aldrich (Willie Conklin), Aaron Galligan-Stierle (Henry Ford), Ensemble, Jonathan Hammond* (Harry Houdini, ensemble), Dan Manning (Grandfather, Ensemble), Michael X. Martin* (J.P. Morgan, Admiral Peary, Ensemble), Michael McGowan (Stanford White), Donna Migliaccio (Emma Goldman, ensemble), Josh Walden (Harry K. Thaw, Ensemble), Savannah Wise* (Evelyn Nesbit, ensemble), Terence Archie(Matthew Henson, ayden Brockington (Coalhouse Walker III, Alternate), Jennifer Evans (Kathleen, Ensemble), J Tracy Lynn Olivera(Brigit, Ensemble), Bryonha Parham (Sarah's Friend, Ensemble), Kylil Williams (Coalhouse Walker III), Eric Jordan Young* (Booker T. Washington, who appeared in the original Broadway production of Ragtime, Ensemble)
Also in Ensemble: Sumayya Ali, Corey Bradley, Carly Hughes, Valisia LeKae, Mamie Parris, Nicole Powell, Arbender J. Robinson, Benjamin Schrader, Wallace Smith, Catherine Walker

Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Original Costume Design: Santo Loquasto
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Sound Design: *Acme Sound Partners
Wig and Hair Design: *Edward J. Wilson
Musical Coordinator: John Miller
Orchestra: Conducted by James Moore; Associate Conductor: Jamie Schmidt; Concert Master: Rick Dolan; Violins: Elizabeth Lim-Dutton, Cenovia Cummins, Ashley Horn, Una Tone and Kiku Enomoto; Violas: Maxine Roach and Debra Shufelt-Dine; Celli: Laura Bontrager and Sarah Hewitt Roth; Bass: Jeff Cooper; Harp: Barbara Biggers; Woodwinds: Katherine Fink, Lynne Cohen, Jonathan Levine and Todd Groves; Trumpets: Timothy Schadt and Daniel Urness; French Horns: Patrick Pridemore and William DeVos; Trombones: Alan Ferber and Dan Levine; Tuba: Marcus Rojas; Percussion: Charles Descarfino; Drums: Rich Rosenzweig; Guitar: Greg Utzig; Keyboards: Jamie Schmidt and Sue Anschutz

Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, one intermission.
Neil Simon Theatre 250 West 52nd Street (212) 307-4100
Tuesday evening at 7 PM, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday matinee at 2 PM, Sunday matinee at 3 PM. Dark Monday.
Tickets: $46.50 to $126.50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 12/17/09
From 10/23/09; opening 11/15/09
Sad to say this lovely revival never found the audience needed to keep it alive and so ended up part of the first-of-the-year show closing rush: Last performance 1/03/10
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Ragtime /The Company
  • Goodbye, My Love / Mother
  • Journey On/ Father, Tateh and Mother
  • The Crime of the Century/ Evelyn Nesbit, Mother's Younger Brother and Ensemble
  • What Kind of Woman / Mother
  • A Shtetl Iz Amereke / Tateh, The Little Girl and Ensemble
  • Success/Tateh, J. P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, Ensemble
  • Gettin' Ready Rag / Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Ensemble
  • Henry Ford / Henry Ford, Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Ensemble
  • Nothing Like the City / Tateh, Mother, The Little Boy and The Little Girl
  • Your Daddy's Son / Sarah
  • New Music / Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother, Coalhouse Walker Jr., Sarah and Ensemble
  • Wheels of a Dream / Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Sarah
  • The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square / Mother's Younger Brother, Emma Goldman and Ensemble
  • Gliding / Tateh
  • Justice / Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Ensemble
  • President / Sarah
  • Till We Reach That Day / Sarah's Friend, Coalhouse Walker Jr., Emma Goldman, Mother's Younger Brother, Mother, Tateh and Ensemble
Act Two
  • Coalhouse's Soliloquy/Coalhouse Walker Jr.
  • Coalhouse Demands/ The Company
  • What A Game!/ Father, The Little Boy and Ensemble
  • Atlantic City / Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Houdini and Father
  • New Music (Reprise)/ Father
  • Atlantic City, Part II / Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Houdini and Ensemble
  • Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc. / Baron Ashkenazy
  • Our Children/ Mother and Baron Ashkenazy
  • Sarah Brown Eyes / Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Sarah
  • He Wanted to Say / Emma Goldman, Mother's Younger Brother, Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Coalhouse's Gang
  • Back to Before / Mother
  • Look What You've Done/ Booker T. Washington, Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Coalhouse's Gang
  • Make Them Hear You / Coalhouse Walker Jr.
  • Ragtime/The Wheels of a Dream (Reprise) / The Company

Kennedy Center Review by Susan Davidson
And there was distant music, simple and somehow sublime, giving the nation a new syncopation. The people called it Ragtime!
New York, in 1902, was a city in a country on the brink of change in population, technology, race relations, " . . . and there was music playing. . .a strange music, a sound of distant thunder." Ragtime, the pulsating beat that emanated from the ghetto known as Harlem, set the tempo of the time — upbeat, challenging, but not without its sad notes. Readers of E. L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime on which the musical is based will remember its pace was as thrilling and as rhythmic as horses hooves on a hard surface. The current revival at the Kennedy Center delivers the same sense of vibrancy.

The three very different subsets of the population represented in Ragtime are upper middle-class WASPs, grubby and poor immigrants, most notably Jews from Eastern Europe, and African-Americans, then called "nigroes," who post-slavery settled in the northern reaches of Manhattan. Their backgrounds, their beliefs and prejudices are interwoven almost flawlessly by Terrence McNally. (Considerable suspension of disbelief is called for as Mrs. WASP, a character called Mother (Christiane Noll) takes in a poor unmarried African-American girl, Sarah, (Jennlee Shallow) and her new-born child.)

Added to this mix are bigoted Irish immigrants, and such non-fictional characters as banker J. P. Morgan whose Library remains today one of New York City's great landmarks. . . car maker Henry Ford and his then brand new Model T. . . illusionist Harry Houdini who makes a stunning entrance from above, upside down on a swing. . . African-American leader and scholar Booker T. Washington, human rights advocate. . . rabble-rouser Emma Goldman. . . Stanford White, the architect and rogue and Evelyn Nesbit, (played with just the right amount of coquetry and humor by Leigh Ann Larkin) as the side of a love-triangle that ends with "the crime of the century." Ah, passion.

Harsh realities such as the grim fate of the poor, both "negro" and Jewish, and widely held bigotry come through most vividly in scenes involving the Irish immigrants' treatment of famous jazz man Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Quentin Earl Darrington), Sarah's lover and father of Sarah's child, who runs afoul of their gang as does Sarah. Ragtime's best moments are when Sarah and Coalhouse take center stage. Their voices are strong, their duets, particularly "The Wheels of a Dream," are filled with romance and hope, a nice message for tough times.

The show is not without humor. There's a terrific ode to baseball "What a Game!" in the second act, featuring Christopher Cox as the Little Boy. Few child actors have this kid's sense of irony and spot on timing.

What makes this revival of Ragtime so successful is Marcia Milgrom Dodge's choreography and direction. She and music director James Moore make the most of Stephen Flaherty's spicey score of rags and some shtetl-based Yiddish melodies, and Lynn Ahrens's clever lyrics, ("stroke those keys, every note says please.")

Derek McLane's set — five tiers of iron railings with an occasional Victorian flourish in the corners— is evocative of so many locales inherent in the piece: a nitty gritty New York train station, a sweatshop factory, suburban New Rochelle (although suburbs were still to come), and the railing of ships that carried Captain Perry to the North Pole and Jewish immigrants to America. It works extremely well, probably because Dodge uses the choreographer's side of her brain to move the very large cast from one imagined locale to another, taking the audience along every step of the way

Ragtime, based on the novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge Music Director James Moore
Cast: Christopher Cox (Little Boy), Ron Bohmer(Father), Christiane Noll (Mother), Bobby Steggert (Younger Brother), Dan Manning (Grandfather), Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse Walker, Jr.), Jennlee Shallow (Sarah), Eric Jordan Young (Booker T. Washington), Jonathan Hammond (Tateh), Sarah Rosenthal (Little Girl), Josh Waldon (Harry Houdini), David Garry (J. P. Morgan), Aaron Galligan-Stierle(Henry Ford), Donna Migliaccio (Emma Goldman), Leigh Ann Larkin (Evelyn Nesbit), Aaron Galligan-Stierle (Admiral Peary), Jim Weaver (Matthew Henson), Dan Manning (Judge) Stanford White (Gavin Esham) Harry K. Thaw (Josh Waldon) Mark Aldrich, Aaron Galligan-Stierle, Gregory Maheu (Reporters), Susan Derry (Kathleen), Policeman (Josh Walden), Child Buyer (Mark Aldrich) Policeman (Gavin Esham), Bryonha Parha (Sarah's Friend), Sumayya Ali (Soprano Soloist), David Garry (Trolley Conductor), Mark Aldrich (Willie Conklin) Gavin Esham, Aaron Galligan-Stierle, Gregory Maheu, Josh Walden (Firemen), Tracy Lynn Olivera (Brigit), Aaron Galligan-Stierle (Train Conductor), Susan Derry, Elizabeth, Loren Earley, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Elisa Van Duyne (White Bureaucrats), Jim Weaver (Black Lawyer), Sasha Sloan, Nellesa Walthour (Newsboys), David Garry, Gregory Maheu (More Reporters), Susan Derry (Welfare Official), Bryonhya Parham (Baron's Assistant), Melvin Bell III, Kevin Boseman, Corey Bradley, Jim Weaver (Coalhouse Gang), Jim Weaver, Shelby Braxton-Brooks (Harlem Man and Harlem Woman), Kevin Boseman, Nellesa Walthour (Harlem Couple) (Pas de Deux), Aaron Galligan-Stierle (Charles S. Whitman, D.A. ), Rashad J. Koker (Coalhouse Walker III).

Ensemble: Mark Aldrich, Sumayya Ali, Melvin Bell III, Kevin Boseman, Corey Bradley, Shelby Braxton-Brooks, Susan Derry, Elizabeth Loren Early, Gavin Esham, Aaron Galligan-Stierle, David Garry, Jonathan Hammond, Leigh Ann Larkin, Gregory Maheu, Dan Manning, Sean McKnight, Donna Miliaccio, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Bryonha Parham, Sasha Sloan, Elisa Van Duyne, Josh Walden, Nellesa Walthour, Jim Weaver, Eric Jordan Young.

Scenic Design by Derek McLane
Original Costume Design by Santo Loquasto
Lighting Design by Donald Holder
Sound Design by Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm
Additional Costume Design by Jimm Halliday
Wig and Hair Design by Bernie Ardia
Running time: 2 hours and 55 minutes, one 20-minuteintermission.
Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, Washington, DC 202-467-4600; 800-444-1324
Performances: Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30PM; Saturdays and Sundays matinees at 1.30PM.
From: 4/18/09; 5/25/09; closing 5/17/09
Reviewed by Susan Davidson May 13, 2009 .

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