No word has been more bandied about in American life the past two years than change. And no show investigates the nuances of that word as it relates to the American Dream — conveying hope, opportunity and success, but also the ugly flipside of pain, division, confusion and violence — more masterfully than “Ragtime.” The 1997 musical not only feels trenchant and timely, but its multistrand story is delivered with fresh clarity and emotional immediacy in director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s elegant revival, transferring to Broadway from D.C.’s Kennedy Center, where it originated in April. This is big-brain, bold-strokes musical-theater storytelling at its most vibrant.
Adapted by book writer Terrence McNally from the panoramic 1975 E.L. Doctorow novel, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the uncommonly ambitious show brings together a creative team working at peak potential. But despite its gifted cast and elaborate visual trappings, Frank Galati’s original staging — overseen with the bombast of a Barnum-esque showman by producer Garth Drabinsky — somewhat smothered the characters’ emotional journeys in spectacle.
By stripping back the production frills yet retaining a grandeur appropriate to the sprawling story in Derek McLane’s three-tiered, wrought-iron scaffold set, Dodge has made the focus more intimate, the sorrows more piercing and the joys more uplifting. But as much as the characters, it’s the growing pains of a multicultural nation that become the production’s pulsating center, swiftly communicated in a stunning opening tableau and in the exhilarating title number that follows.
Built around a seductive ragtime melody that recurs throughout the show and functions as a propulsive narrative engine, that song unfolds in stages that introduce and delineate the plot’s three distinct groups. The well-heeled white folks of New Rochelle, N.Y., open the number in their lace and finery, and their stiff, self-consciously formal movements, followed by the black characters, with their more sensual, loosey-goosey physicality. Last come the immigrants, with their ragged clothes and shuffling dance that instantly evokes East European cultures. Interspersed throughout the song, McNally has each of the principal characters present themselves in the third person, at once embracing the literary nature of the material and charging it with theatrical life.
Set in 1902, the story intertwines the paths of a WASP family headed by an unnamed Father (Ron Bohmer) tethered to conservative tradition and a Mother (Christiane Noll) driven to become her own person; black ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker (Quentin Earl Darrington) and his love Sarah (Stephanie Umoh), whose lives are devastated by racism; and Jewish refugee Tateh (Robert Petkoff), who endures the hardships of life in the tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side with his young daughter (Sarah Rosenthal), eventually emerging as a movie industry pioneer.
Into that fictitious plot, real-life historical figures are folded, among them Harry Houdini (Jonathan Hammond), Emma Goldman (Donna Migliaccio), Booker T. Washington (Eric Jordan Young), J.P. Morgan (Michael X. Martin), Henry Ford (Aaron Galligan-Stierle) and scandalous showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (Savannah Wise). It’s a rich historical mosaic whose themes encompass immigration, racism, social injustice, celebrity, politics, industry and capitalism.
Some may quibble that Flaherty’s score overplays its hand with its succession of emphatic anthems, but shuffled among those numbers are more delicate songs of introspection and yearning that bring the show gently back to earth from its many soaring peaks. Under Dodge’s assured direction, the impeccable cast plays that balance like perfectly tuned instruments.
Supplying the gravitas needed to convey Coalhouse’s spiral from gracious gent to embittered urban terrorist, Darrington is a charismatic presence who breathes real authority into his scenes, particularly in the late action when he and his band occupy the Morgan Library. His velvety baritone is heard to especially powerful effect on “Make Them Hear You.”
Umoh’s Sarah shows a lovely, wounded strength, notably on “Your Daddy’s Son.” Bohmer grasps the conflict of a decent man too locked into inflexible values to hear “New Music,” and Bobby Steggert brings compelling intensity to the firebrand Younger Brother.
But much as the tragedy of Coalhouse and Sarah gives the show its formidable dramatic heft, it’s Mother’s emotional arc that resonates most poignantly here. Noll is superb at showing the clash of her character’s compassion and moral fortitude against her expected role as dutiful, unquestioning wife, and it’s touching to witness her nervously discovering the legitimacy of wanting something more. Her “Back to Before” stirringly cements that step, while “Our Children” is a tender realization of her first flickers of romance with Tateh, given soulful depths by Petkoff.
Minor trims have been made to some songs, with no loss of epic scope. Dodge makes intelligent use of the multiple levels of McLane’s versatile set to keep all the storylines fluidly in play and to underscore the boundaries of class and ethnicity separating the characters. The upper levels are particularly effective when figures such as Goldman, Houdini and Nesbit are ushered in to observe or comment on the main action.
Donald Holder’s majestic lighting adds further dramatic texture, and Santo Loquasto’s gorgeous period costumes have been smartly recycled from the original production. The score is beautifully sung, and with 28 musicians in the pit, it’s also played with all the exquisite dimension only a full-size orchestra can bring, making “Ragtime” a transporting sensory experience.