Successfully transforming “Ragtime” the novel into “Ragtime, the Musical” would be a trick worthy of Harry Houdini. Although E.L. Doctorow’s graceful 1975 book, as rich in 1906 period detail as it is in atmosphere and characterization, initially seems an ideal choice for dramatization, a second read (not to mention a viewing of Milos Forman’s 1981 movie version) brings out the pitfalls: A skillful mosaic of fact and fiction, of numerous storylines woven together with supreme artistry, the novel haunts the reader as much by what is left unwritten as by what is written. Such subtlety is not typically the province of big-budget musicals — the stage has to be filled with something, and director Frank Galati has chosen to fill it with a vigor (robust at best, bombastic at worst) that all but subsumes Doctorow’s spare elegance.
Doctorow’s tale of the gilded (think summer linens and parasols), the oppressed and the newly arrived blends the lives of common folk with the rich and famous of the day, a story not so much of serendipity as of the threads that connect all our lives, from the inhabitants of whitebread New Rochelle to Harlem , from a just-off-the-boat immigrant to Houdini and famed architect Stanford White. In Livent Inc.’s $ 8 million-plus production, headed for Broadway late next year, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and book writer Terrence McNally have kept most of the figures who populate the novel — a feat the movie barely managed — even if some of the characters (Houdini, for example) are little more than stock figures.
Fans of the novel will no doubt be disappointed with some of the editing done here — Emma Goldman’s interaction with starlet Evelyn Nesbit, eliminated entirely, would be my gripe — but such fault-finding is hardly fair. Something had to go or we’d be sitting in the Ford Theater for more than the plenty-long three hours. What shouldn’t have gone, though, is three-dimensional characterization. With a few exceptions, the characters here are whittled down to their signifying traits, a reducing that goes beyond the standard musical theater shorthand. Surely Nesbit (Lynnette Perry), who inspired socialite Harry Thaw to blow architect White’s brains out (neither man is depicted onstage), was more than a standard-issue bubble-headed chorine. And the story’s heart, a character called Mother (Marin Mazzie), shouldn’t start out as the embodiment of compassion or her emotional journey has no destination.
The story — or stories — is told almost entirely through song, and although composer Stephen Flaherty apparently never encountered a crescendo he didn’t like, much of the score is memorable. One wishes the orchestrations (by William David Brohn) weren’t so overpowering. The songs too often seem smothered , the emotion forced.
Most of the first act is given over to musical numbers that establish the panoply of characters. Thus Mother sings “Goodbye, My Love” to stern, unlovable Father (Mark Jacoby) as the latter sets off on a North Pole expedition with Admiral Peary. The Klezmer-tinged “A Schtetl Is Amereke” features Tateh (Peter Friedman), a Latvian Jew arriving at Ellis Island with more hope than promise, and the boop-de-doop vaudeville number “The Crime of the Century” introduces Nesbit as the scandalous Girl on the Swing (the song’s early placement in the musical’s lineup suggests the character will play a greater role in “Ragtime” than she actually does).
The main storyline begins when Mother, gardening in her summer whites, discovers an abandoned black infant. Mother accepts the baby, and the baby’s distraught mother, Sarah (Audra McDonald), into the household, an act of kindness welcomed by Mother’s Younger Brother (Steven Sutcliffe), a burgeoning radical, and her own young, curious son (Paul Franklin Dano). Not so approving is Father, who, upon returning from his adventure, is anything but pleased with the impropriety.
The baby’s father is Harlem ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Brian Stokes Mitchell), a man whose love and virtue take him to New Rochelle to court and claim Sarah and their son. Despite her initial reluctance (we’re never told how the two fell out, but it must have been pretty serious — Sarah did leave her baby for dead, a fact that the musical tries, but can’t manage, to gloss over with brokenhearted sentimentality), Sarah forgives Coalhouse, and the young family is poised for happiness.
Until a group of local thugs, resentful of Coalhouse’s fine clothes and Model-T car, smash up the automobile and defecate on its seat. Coalhouse turns to the justice system, but to no avail — he’s black, the thugs are white, end of story. Or at least it would be, until Sarah, innocently seeking the help of the president during a whistlestop rally, is beaten and killed by security guards. In his grief, Coalhouse goes on a murderous rampage and, with the assistance of Younger Brother, threatens to blow up New York’s Morgan Library.
Meanwhile, Mother, Father, their boy and little Coalhouse Jr. have escaped media glare by relocating to Atlantic City, where they encounter the once-poor Tateh, now a successful silent movie director (a development not as far-fetched as it reads in description). Nesbit and Houdini (Jim Corti) make visits, but add little to the plot mechanics.
Goldman, the anarchist, adds even less, making periodic entrances chiefly to rail against injustice. But even that’s more than J.P. Morgan (Mike O’Carroll) and Henry Ford (Larry Daggett) contribute, despite Ford having his own big production number. And Booker T. Washington (Richard Allen) is the most one-note of all, drawn as a sort of Buddha of the black cause.
Such lapses are particularly disappointing given the promise of the opening number, “Ragtime.” The song neatly establishes the production’s themes, musical and otherwise. The syncopated rag is resurrected throughout the musical (it’s easily the catchiest of the songs), and Ahrens’ lyrics (“There were no Negroes,” “There were no immigrants”) captures the insularity of the privileged class. The white folk, white-clad, are soon joined by the smartly dressed Harlem crowd and the peasant-stock immigrants. Choreographer Graciela Daniele has each group dancing in its own tight ensemble around the mostly empty stage (Eugene Lee’s sets — a Victorian dollhouse representing the New Rochelle home, iron gates for Ellis Island, a backdrop of color-tinted period postcards for Atlantic City — glide on and off the otherwise spare space), and Santo Loquasto’s costumes are both attractive and authentic.
If only the fluidity of the opening number was echoed throughout Galati’s direction. Best known as the Tony-winning director of “The Grapes of Wrath,” Galati also has staged numerous operas, and the resume is evident. Characters tend to arrive onstage (together or in groups), face the audience and belt their songs. Each scene (11 in the first act alone) comes in with all the brashness of the Goldman character, planting itself firmly on the stage, finishing its business and stalking off. If the novel flowed with the syncopated eloquence of ragtime, the musical overwhelms with opera’s declamatory insistence.
Perhaps that’s why, for all of its entertainment value — and it does have that — “Ragtime, the Musical” stirs little genuine emotion beyond the rah-rah sort. Everyone, from the fine cast of performers to the songwriters, orchestrator and director, is so busy telling us to feel what they want us to feel that we can’t discover for ourselves the sweet, sad pleasures of Doctorow’s elegy for a bygone era. Late in act two, Goldman harrumphs onstage to sing “He Wanted to Say,” a song that makes explicit what the inarticulate Younger Brother can’t express. The trouble is, we already know.