Review: ‘Ragtime’

The enormous scope and grandeur of "Ragtime" is vividly displayed in the musical's new touring production, imperceptibly scaled back from the Broadway and Los Angeles versions. It's as finely tuned as the shiny vintage Ford that purrs around the stage.

The enormous scope and grandeur of “Ragtime” is vividly displayed in the musical’s new touring production, imperceptibly scaled back from the Broadway and Los Angeles versions. It’s as finely tuned as the shiny vintage Ford that purrs around the stage.

Seldom do such opulent visual spectacles offer other elements to match. But everything else in this musical is colossal too, starting with E.L. Doctorow’s hefty novel about early 20th century America and its broad social themes including bigotry, discrimination, activism and injustice. Then there’s the 52 -member cast, resplendent in some 400 costumes and erupting with energy over the lively choral anthems of Stephen Flaherty.

As unlikely as it may seem to audiences who’ll see it, economies to the touring version have actually been made. The cast has been decreased by 10%, the orchestra by five members, a pair of prominent towers and staircases have been eliminated from the set, and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting grid has been re-examined and made more efficient. This “Ragtime” hits the road in 15 trucks, about 10 less than producer Garth Drabinsky’s touring “Show Boat.”

Terrence McNally has woven an enormous swath of material from Doctorow’s novel, which sees the American experience through the eyes of a privileged family from New Rochelle, N.Y., a Jewish immigrant and his daughter, and a Harlem musician and his wife and child. Tossed in are actual characters from the period — comic relief from vaudeville siren Evelyn Nesbitt (played delightfully by Melissa Dye) and illusionist Harry Houdini (Bernie Yvon), and strength from civil rights crusader Emma Goldman (Theresa Tova) and Booker T. Washington (Allan Louis).

Among the principals, Alton Fitzgerald White impresses as Coalhouse Walker, the ragtime musician turned vengefulrebel, around whom much of the plot spins. White has a commanding presence and a silky baritone. Darlesia Cearcy, as the troubled girlfriend, utilizes her stunning voice to showcase some of Flaherty’s best melodies. Veteran Michael Rupert is a picture of hope, despair and perseverance as the immigrant Tateh, in full pursuit of the American dream. Rebecca Eichenberger is also right as the soft-hearted mother.

Frank Galati’s seamless staging moves the action briskly, while Graciela Daniele’s inventive choreography helps make every number special.


National Theater, Washington; 1,169 seats; $75 top


A National Theater and Livent (U.S.) Inc. presentation, in association with American Artists Ltd. Inc., of a musical in two acts with music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and book by Terrence McNally, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow. Directed by Frank Galati.


Musical direction, Jay Alger; choreography, Graciela Daniele. Sets, Eugene Lee; costumes, Santo Loquasto; lighting, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; sound, Jonathan Deans; orchestrations, William David Brohn; music supervision, Jeffrey Huard; dance music arrangements, David Krane; vocal arrangements, Flaherty; projection design , Wendell K. Harrington; associate choreographer, Willie Rosario; casting, Beth Russell, Arnold J. Mungioll. Opened, reviewed April 29, 1998. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.


Little boy - Nathan Keen
Father - Chris Groenendaal
Mother - Rebecca Eichenberger
Mother's younger brother - Aloysius Gigl
Grandfather - Austin Colyer
Coalhouse Walker Jr - Alton Fitzgerald White
Sarah - Darlesia Cearcy
Booker T. Washington - Allan Louis
Tateh - Michael Rupert
Little girl - Amy Carrey
Harry Houdini - Bernie Yvon
J.P. Morgan - Erick Devine
Henry Ford - Larry Cahn
Emma Goldman - Theresa Tova
Evelyn Nesbit - Melissa Dye
Stanford White - Jonathan Stahl
Harry K. Thaw - Stephen Reed
Adm. Peary - David Hess
Matthew Henson - David Jennings
Reporter - Todd Jones
Kathleen - Elinore O'Connell
Doctor - Scott Calcagno
Sarah's friend - Inga Ballard
Willie Conklin - Christian Whelan
Brigit - Elena Ferrante
Little Coalhouse - Colby A. Moore, Brandon Pierce Fitzgerald
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