Ragtime makes a triumphant return to Broadway in this powerful revival now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York. Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime tells the stories of Mother, a stifled middle class woman getting her first taste of independence; Tateh, a hopeful Jewish immigrant who dreams of creating a better life for his daughter; and Coalhouse Walker Jr., a successful black piano player who loses everything due to bigotry and ignorance at the beginning of the 20th century. Woven into the fabric of these stories are real historical figures, including Admiral Perry, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Henry Ford, Stanford White, and Booker T. Washington. These compelling and historically relevant stories combine with a Tony Award-winning musical score, creative staging, and outstanding performances to make this show a joy to experience.
The music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens are hauntingly beautiful. The ensemble numbers are breathtaking and the individual performances inspired. While Broadway giants Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald portrayed the lovers in the original production, Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Stephanie Umoh as Sarah shine in the roles here. Other standouts in the cast include Ron Bohmer as Father, Christopher Cox as the Little Boy, and Dan Manning as Grandfather. My favorites were Robert Petkoff, who played Tateh and sang in a way that reminded me of Mandy Patinkin, and Christiane Noll as Mother, whose clear voice portrayed not only the timid uncertainty of a dutiful wife, but also the growing strength of an independent and confident woman.
What appears to be a simple multi-level scaffolding set design by Derek McLane is actually an integral part of the production. The scaffold serves as balcony, fire escape, stage, ship, and home, in and through which the various cast members seamlessly move around, creating a clear representation of the environments in which they live. Audience members can picture the immigrant slums, the Harlem dance hall, and the quaint New Rochelle home of the main characters, without the stage being cluttered by lavish scenery or sets.
The simple set also serves to remind us that this is not a show about the things that people acquired at the turn of the century, but about the timeless issues of changing mores, fairness, justice, hope, and despair during periods of great social upheaval. Some of the characters do not make it through their struggles but others were able to achieve their expectations and perhaps even surpass their wildest dreams. Ragtime does not shy away from displaying America's flaws, including the ugliness of racism, violence, and despair, but it is more a celebration of the promise and hope that is America for a better life and a brighter future.
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