Tuesday, November 17, 2009



Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse Walker
with The Cast
Photo: (c) 2009, Joan Marcus

Most Americans, and nearly every New Yorker, will have a strong and visceral connection to something in the new, powerful, entertaining Broadway version of Ragtime. Feelings and memories stirred up while I watched Ragtime were profoundly moving for me.

The story of Ragtime begins around 1902. There are three families (all fictional): an established Wasp family from the suburbs, a black family, and an immigrant family, together with many historical characters.

The play selects from the characters and events in the book (the novel by E. L. Doctorow), a carefully chosen story that focuses on the developing radicalism of Coalhouse Walker, a ragtime pianist, and on the interactions between Mother (of the WASPs) and all the others.

Christiane Noll as Mother
Robert Petkoff and Sarah Rosenthal as the Immigrants Tateh and Sarah
and Ron Bohmer as Father
Photo: (c) 2009, Joan Marcus

Quentin Earl Darrington -- as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., the ragtime piano player who is gradually radicalized -- sings and acts with great skill and passion. Christiane Noll as Mother sings beautifully and is just a pleasure to listen to. Stephanie Umoh, making her Broadway debut as Sarah, is just beautiful; and she has an affecting duet with Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in the second act. Christopher Cox as the Little Boy also deserves special mention.

Coalhouse Walker is said to be named after a character,
Kohlhaas, in an older novel by Heinrich von Kleist. Together with references to the shooting of the Archduke that triggered WW 1, these threads connect this story of a 1900’s black militant to militant radicals of all kinds throughout history.

The set design is based on an attractive scaffolding which extends way up into the sky. It makes an impressive opening stage picture when the curtain rises, even drawing some gasps in the audience. There are some variations on this basic set, but no big new scenery changes ever appear.

The huge cast fills the whole stage and all the layers on the scaffold, and a large live orchestra provides a rich presentation of the music. The basic ragtime music is infectious! and the other songs and music are excellent, but not particularly memorable; they hold your interest throughout the play: I would go back to Ragtime to hear the music again, ‘though I couldn’t repeat it at home.

Ragtime music is a form of syncopated music that was developed around the late 1800’s. It had a recent revival (one of many revivals since its peak) when used as the theme music of The Sting. There’s a very interesting
article about ragtime music in Wikipedia.

Just a few minor suggestions and notes... All the cast have their pictures in the program. Why not print the actor’s character and their name in the same caption, so readers don’t have to shift back and forth in the program to figure out who is who? (This, of course, is true of most every program for most every Broadway show.) (More conveniently, but also without character names on the captions,
the whole cast is on the Ragtime website.)

Also, the seats in the theater, like so many seats in the classic theaters of Broadway are just barely large enough for a modern audience. I’m not big at all and sitting down for the first act my left pocket caught on the left armrest and ripped the seam of my pants as I sat down. So I was very careful sitting down for the second act to avoid ripping that left pocket again… so my right pocket caught on the right armrest and when I sat down I ripped the right seam on my pants.

Finally, Broadway theaters need more restroom facilities – especially for the women -- more conveniently located. (Stairs, lobby, and the restroom itself are more crowded during intermission than a subway at rush hour.)

This is an old-fashioned musical (book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgram Dodge). It tells a story about events one-hundred years ago, staged and performed in a classic manner.

Unlike many shows which peter out in the second act, Ragtime’s second act is entertaining, moving, and hits a dramatic and emotional peak as it moves to the close.

Ragtime is a perfect holiday, family show, with excellent music, a strong story, great singing, visual pleasure, and, most of all, those incredible moments when the tales of these three old American families find deep resonances in our own modern lives and histories.

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