LONDON — More than three years after it was first floated for a West End preem, “Ragtime” is set to reach London in a fresh, pared-down production intended to put the songs center-stage.

“It’s kind of thrilling to see your work reimagined by great new artists,” says lyricist Lynn Ahrens, who, with composer Stephen Flaherty, wrote the Tony-winning score for the E.L. Doctorow adaptation. Directed by Stafford Arima, a Canadian who was an associate on the 1998 Broadway version, the London stand opens March 19 at the Piccadilly for a 12-week season (to start with, anyway).

The show, capitalized at about $1 million (a fraction of the Broadway cost), is the first “Ragtime” to be seen outside North America.

Earlier plans to bring the show to London were disrupted by, among other things, the criminal investigation surrounding its then-producer Garth Drabinsky.

The cast couples Brits who originally were mooted for that London production several years back (Graham Bickley and Dave Willetts among them) alongside Broadway performer Kevyn Morrow as Coalhouse, the part once earmarked in London for Adrian Lester.

The impetus for this new staging, says lead producer Sonia Friedman, came from a sellout one-night-only concert version of “Ragtime” Oct. 26 as part of the Intl. Festival of Musical Theater in Cardiff; Sonia’s elder sister Maria played Mother then, as she will again.

“I went along,” says producer Friedman, “and was completely blown away by the piece. I decided by the end of the show, this had to be seen” on the West End.

But aren’t the tuner’s creators concerned about a stripped-down aesthetic — the London designer is Robert Jones — that might render their musical, in visual terms, “Ragtime” lite?

Not at all. “You know what?” says Ahrens. “If it ends just with the spoken word, that would be fine. When all is said and done, it’s the writing that matters.”

Friedman fires up

Elsewhere this spring, the play’s the thing for Sonia Friedman, who last year brought Madonna, Woody Harrelson and Kyle MacLachlan (among others) to London but this year is focusing her attentions somewhat closer to home.

Oliver Ford Davies and Anna Carteret have been added to the cast of Martin Sherman’s “ABSOLUTELY! (Perhaps),” the Pirandello adaptation directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Joan Plowright; expect a late-April bow.

Around the same time, probably at the Comedy Theater, Friedman partners with lead producer Mark Rubinstein on a West End revival of David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,” to be directed by Lindsay Posner. Malibu-based Brit Minnie Driver is being paged to star.

Bells peal for Russell Beale

An English actor currently Off Broadway and another set to make her debut on Broadway won the top acting prizes Feb. 4 from the Critics’ Circle, honoring theatrical achievement throughout 2002. Simon Russell Beale was named best actor for his pair of perfs as Vanya and Malvolio in the Donmar Warehouse productions of “Uncle Vanya” and “Twelfth Night” that have since transferred to BAM. Clare Higgins was cited as best actress for her perf as a young Vincent van Gogh’s loveless landlady in “Vincent in Brixton,” the Nicholas Wright play opening next month on Broadway.

Both performers were honored in the same categories at the Evening Standard Theater Awards in November and are competing for this year’s Oliviers (to be presented Feb. 14), thereby making a potential hat trick of their trophies.

Best director went to Sam Mendes for “Vanya” and “Twelfth Night,” Mendes’ Donmar farewell. The helmer last fall took the Evening Standard prize for the same Chekhov/Shakespeare pairing. But a different “Twelfth Night” — the all-male production seen last summer at Shakespeare’s Globe — won its Olivia, actor Mark Rylance, the J.C. Trewin award for outstanding Shakespearean perf.

Best musical went to the Royal National Theater’s ongoing revival of “Anything Goes,” directed by Trevor Nunn, whose epic staging of Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” won for William Dudley’s design. Best play was Peter Gill’s “The York Realist,” a love story between two men of different classes in Yorkshire in the early 1960s.

Alison Pargeter, one of the acting ensemble from another epic venture — Alan Ayckbourn’s trio of plays, “Damsels in Distress” — was named most promising newcomer, while Hampstead Theater publicist Charlotte Eilenberg was named most promising playwright for her play “The Lucky Ones.”

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