Like a player piano, “Ragtime” has all its notes in their proper places, nothing left to chance or, for that matter, nuance. Livent’s lavish, impeccably designed $10 million production sets E.L. Doctorow’s brilliant 1975 novel to a syncopated beat, deftly weaving together the various storylines through which Doctorow elegantly evoked the formative years of this century. Since its debut in Toronto more than a year ago, and through a subsequent production in Los Angeles, “Ragtime” has been tuned and tinkered with, with a few loose ends tied up, some characters sharpened and performances strengthened. The show’s assets — chief among them its tasteful, pretty look, fine singing and an opening number that virtually defines musical theater concision and artistry — remain crisp and appealing, just the sort of high-toned attributes that will keep the comfortable seats of Livent’s beautiful Ford Center for the Performing Arts filled for a long time to come.
Whether the three-hour show can keep patrons from fidgeting in those roomy seats is another matter. Despite the tinkering, the three-hour “Ragtime” remains a long-winded affair, bloated and more than a little self-important. If box office hasn’t been as strong in L.A. (or Toronto, where the New York production began), surely this is the main reason: “Ragtime,” for all of its skill and polish, is a musical easier to admire than love, its plentiful, rich characters more often than not seeming as distant as the era they inhabit.
Granted, book writer Terrence McNally had a difficult job. For all of its haunting lyricism, Doctorow’s novel about American society — or, rather, societies — at the turn of the century (the last one) is almost entirely descriptive, with little of the dialogue demanded by the stage. The novel’s great achievement, like the music for which it’s named, lies in its deceptively airy style, a peerless melding of surface lightness and complex construction. The intricate plot, mingling fictional characters with such historical figures as Harry Houdini, Henry Ford and Booker T. Washington, unspooled with the easy grace of a Scott Joplin melody.
That quality is gloriously rendered in the musical’s opening number. Director Frank Galati and choreographer Graciela Daniele succinctly bring together the three elements of the story — the WASPy inhabitants of New Rochelle, the ragtag Eastern European immigrants of the Lower East Side and the artistically percolating blacks of Harlem just before that neighborhood’s creative Renaissance. In a dance set to the lovely (and very catchy) title song (music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens), the three groups move in fluid motion around the sparsely decorated stage, gradually merging in a jubilant melting pot only to segregate by the number’s end. The show’s themes, musically and otherwise, are established with clarity and, yes, beauty.
A few slow points notwithstanding, the rest of Act I maintains, or comes close, to the promise of that introduction. If “Ragtime” has an episodic feel, with its succession of characters and tableaux dominating the stage one after another, the structure is excusable in the first act as the panoply of personalities are introduced and the plotlines delineated. We meet the privileged, insular New Rochelle family as stern, unloving Father (Mark Jacoby) embarks on Admiral Peary’s Arctic expedition, with compassionate, quietly love-starved Mother (Marin Mazzie) singing her farewell in the soaring ballad “Goodbye, My Love.”
Coming into New York harbor is Latvian immigrant Tateh (Peter Friedman), a Jewish widower who dreams of a better life for himself and his young daughter (Lea Michele). A drawer of silhouettes, the hopeful Tateh envisions neither the cruelties of New York tenements, nor the twist of fate that ultimately transforms his life into the embodiment of the American Dream.
To illustrate the American Nightmare of racism, “Ragtime” tells the story of Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Brian Stokes Mitchell, in one of the show’s standout performances — the other belongs to Friedman), the (fictional) ragtime pianist who leaves Harlem to track down his beloved Sarah (Audra McDonald), a distraught young servant who, after giving birth out of wedlock to the charming Coalhouse’s baby, buries the infant in Mother’s manicured New Rochelle garden.
Kindhearted Mother rescues both the baby and Sarah, providing refuge and understanding. Mother’s Younger Brother (Steven Sutcliffe) wholeheartedly approves, his latent radicalism coming to the fore, while Mother’s Little Boy (Alex Strange) is fascinated by the developments.
Mother even takes pity when Coalhouse comes courting, opening her home to him Sunday after Sunday until the unforgiving Sarah relents and reunites with the once straying, now repentant Coalhouse.
Not everyone in New Rochelle is quite so tolerant, of course. Father, upon returning from the North Pole, is stunned to find his very proper household turned upside down. In yet another fine example of the tuner’s ragtime-as-metaphor for cultural change, Father sings of his bafflement over this “New Music.” Meanwhile, some local toughs, led by Fire Chief Willie Conklin (David Mucci), display their racism by destroying Coalhouse’s much-prized Model T, a vicious act that sets in motion a series of incidents that prove fatal to Sarah.
“Ragtime’s” canvas also includes such real-life figures as Houdini (Jim Corti), here presented as an immigrant-made-good, and Evelyn Nesbit (Lynnette Perry), the modestly talented vaudeville starlet who rose to brief fame after her blueblood, and very jealous, husband murdered famed architect Stanford White. Ford (Larry Daggett) and J.P. Morgan (Mike O’Carroll) make appearances as prototypical capitalists of the Gilded Age, Emma Goldman (Judy Kaye) as the ranting embodiment of socialist disquiet and Booker T. Washington (Tommy Hollis) as the voice of reasoned, however accommodating, black struggle.
Even as the historical figures interact with the fictional characters — all of the lives intersect in surprising ways — they are reduced to icon status, each a symbol of some strain of American history. The device might have been a theatrical necessity (something from the novel had to go), but the one-note personalities offer little by way of emotional depth. And frankly, the ranting of Goldman and righteousness of Washington become very tiresome.
While the first part of “Ragtime” is a skillful blend of the various storylines, the musical ultimately focuses on the Coalhouse plot, leading to a police standoff that should be, quite literally, a dynamite climax. Unfortunately, by the time “Ragtime” reaches the end of its long fuse, after a repetitive second act that often manages to be both overwrought and dull, the musical has very nearly worn out its welcome. With one or two exceptions (Coalhouse, perhaps Mother), none of the characters has won our hearts: Sarah’s a bit of a bore, Father’s ludicrously stiff and Younger Brother is more whiny than fervent.
Some of the character problems lie in the performances. Sutcliffe, as Younger Brother, sings and speaks with a permanent sob in his voice, and McDonald, though a beautiful singer, overplays Sarah’s teary melodrama. Jacoby (as Father) and Strange (as Little Boy) employ an old-fashioned staginess that, while arguably appropriate for this resolutely old-fashioned musical, is something less than endearing.
Warmer performances come from Mazzie, as Mother, Perry (who, as Nesbit, seems to have deepened and smartened her character since Toronto) and, especially, Friedman as Tateh. Even with a mostly silent, all-but-vacant little girl (a decided drawback in a father-daughter storyline), Friedman’s Tateh is both convincing and poignant in his rags-to-riches conversion.
Friedman also provides the musical with some welcome humor, the absence of which is perhaps the only quibble to be made with Mitchell’s performance as Coalhouse. Charming and strong-voiced, Mitchell carries much of the weighty second act on his shoulders.
That act two fails to live up to the promise of act one says less about Mitchell than it does about the pleasant Flaherty/Ahrens score, which becomes ballad-heavy and crescendo-laden after intermission, and the heavily operatic direction of Galati. Not seeming to trust Eugene Lee’s gorgeously spare sets, the equally lovely Jules Fisher/Peggy Eisenhauer lighting design and Santo Loquasto’s button-perfect period costumes, “Ragtime” all but begs us to be moved, trying so hard that it loses touch with its initial charms. By the finale, the musical generates nostalgia as much for its own earlier, considerable high points as it does for the bygone era of its setting.