December 5, 2009

A Counterpoint to "Ragtime"

Longtime theatergoers are always bragging about the legendary shows they saw and that, because of theater’s ephemeral nature, you’ll never get a chance to see: breakout performances like Marlon Brando’s in A Streetcar Named Desire or Audra McDonald’s in the 1994 revival of Carousel, flaming bombs like Moose Murders or Glory Days, and extravagant productions like the original Follies or the 1998 Ragtime.  Well, I saw the latter and I don’t remember a thing about it.  Which has made it difficult for me to take sides in the debate over whether it or the revival currently playing at the Neil Simon Theatre is better.

Some of the critics have fallen hard for the new production.  Variety calls it “big-brain, bold-strokes musical-theater storytelling at its most vibrant.” (Click here to that and other reviews.)  My buddy Bill says he hasn’t been able to stop humming the songs since he saw the show two weeks ago. And even my niece Jennifer, who can be as tough on a show as the acerbic critic John Simon used to be in his heyday, was brought to tears when we saw it last week. All of which makes me feel a little like Scrooge for saying that I’m already beginning to forget what I saw. 

It may say more about me than it does about Ragtime but this is a show that I always feel as though I should like more than I actually do. And there are many reasons that I should. Terrence McNally won a Tony for the musical’s book, which is adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s groundbreaking historical novel set at the turn of the last century.  The novel, which I loved, is an ambitious tale about three families—one black, one white, one Jewish immigrant—and deftly pulls in real-life figures from Harry Houdini to Henry Ford, Emma Goldman to Teddy Roosevelt.  They all pop up in the show too.  And also like the book, the show takes on the serious subjects of class, gender and race that are usually catnip for me
(click here to see a clever guide to all the historical and social references in the show on its website).  Plus Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens also won a Tony for their score, which many people believe to be their finest work.  It has rousing anthems, lovely ballads and some fun character numbers too.

The original Ragtime starred Brian Stokes Mitchell as Coalhouse Walker Jr., a black musician whose insistence on being treated with dignity is the pivot around which the narrative revolves; McDonald as the love of his life Sarah; Marin Mazzie as Mother, the genteel white woman who represents the best of American virtues; and Peter Friedman as Tateh, the immigrant who realizes the American dream. That production is famous (or infamous) for being so lavish (costing by some estimates as much as $20 million) that it helped bankrupt its producer Livent Productions and lead to the charges of fraud that eventually caused the company’s co-founder Garth Drabinsky to be sentenced just this past August to a seven-year prison sentence.

The current version, which started at the Kennedy Center in Washington last summer, has no name stars.  Quentin Earl Darrington’s Coalhouse isn’t commanding enough but the rest of the cast—35 members strong, making Ragtime almost a jobs program unto itself—is fine .  In keeping with these more financially down-scaled times, the new production is so comparatively frugal ($8.5 million) that it skips all but the simplest scenery, although Santo Loquasto, who did the costumes 11 years ago, reprises them now with elegant panache
(click here to see a trailer of the show).

And yet I just can’t work up any enthusiasm for this show.  And it seems I’m not alone.  Ragtime is playing to houses that are nearly half empty. The redoubtable New York Post columnist Michael Riedel recently reported that the show may close as early as Jan. 3 (click here to read his story).  But who knows?  Years from now they may be saying this was one of those production you should have seen.  

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