Nov 17, 2009

Ragtime Revisited

Marcia Mitzman Gaven and John Dossett

Critics are mostly warmish to the new Broadway revival of Ragtime. I saw it in a very early preview (for an essay I've written about race on Broadway for the December American Theatre), and am thus duty-bound not to say too much about the current production.

But I can't keep mum about one thing. Many critics, most prominently Ben Brantley at the Times, have less than loving memories of the original production--i.e., the one that opened in January, 1998 at the Ford Center (now the Hilton). But that's not the "original" I remember, and with perhaps overweening fondness: The show's U.S. premiere was at L.A.'s Shubert Theatre in June, 1997, and that production--starring Marcia Mitzman Gaven, John Dossett, LaChanze, John Rubinstein, and Brian Stokes Mitchell (and later the incomparable Kingsley Leggs, as the best Coalhouse I've yet seen)--was a knockout on every level. I still remember the sound in the house when the show's opening night audience witnessed the opening number's tripartite climax: WASPS, immigrants, and African-Americans in triangles facing off on the stage, then turning and belting out that final, ringing chorus. An ecstatic buzz of recognition would be one way to describe it. Some members of the cast later confirmed to me the specialness of that moment; they said that after doing a tryout in Toronto, in L.A. the show had its first all-American audience, black and white and every other shade, and the response was galvanizing.

It was puzzling for me, then, to hear the muted reception of the 1998 Broadway production--that is, until I saw it. It just wasn't as good at the Ford Center. It did feel overproduced; the theater space itself was over-produced. (And now we understand a little bit why.) Was that L.A. Ragtime, which I went back and lapped up four more times after that opening, just lightning in a bottle? Because Livent had recently produced a triumphant Show Boat, was I seeing Ragtime in perhaps too rosy a light? Was it really a musical for the ages, fit for a place on the shelf with Guys and Dolls and My Fair Lady and Fiddler and Gypsy and Cabaret and Sweeney, or was it just a happy convergence of hype and circumstance?

Well, I saw it again in 2003 at the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities, in a production that was a carbon copy of Frank Galati's and Graciela Daniele's original (right down to the Model T and the casting of Leggs), and at Musical Theatre West, where I saw the best Tateh yet (Eric Anderson, currently appearing in South Pacific). I also caught the tour when it came back to Orange County. Each production only burnished my appreciation of the show, and confirmed my basic first impression that Ragtime was not just the music of something beginning but of something lasting.

I desperately wish I'd seen the February production in Astoria, which sounds like it successfully rendered the show as a chamber piece. (There was a similar production in L.A. just last year.) And here's where I will offer my central criticism of Marcia Milgrim Dodge's sturdy, affecting new Broadway production: that it is stripped back in the direction of a chamber version, with accordingly salutary focus on words, music, and character over spectacle, but that because it's still on a big Broadway stage, with huge girders that hint at Eugene Lee's original set, it feels like a certain grandeur is missing. Without a sense of sweep, the show's second act, in particular, just feels like all book. And the casting, for my taste, is a little on the bland side. And so I do fear that this new version--though it's making a strong case for a show I love to some audiences and critics who didn't "get it" last time--doesn't make the absolute best case possible for the show's merits, which to my mind that initial L.A. bow amply did.

I'm willing to concede that I may be holding on a little too tightly to that memory, but then, what are we critics made of if not our theatregoing memories? The silver lining, in any case, is that the popularity of this new revival may be enough to insure that it will come around again, possibly in another generation--and with any luck, thoroughly reimagined.

RELATED: I liked Peter Filichia's confident closer today:
Ragtime will be one of the six musicals that first lost the Best Musical Tony but eventually won the Best Musical Revival Tony. (Sweet Charity, Gypsy, Chicago, Into the Woods and Hair are the others.) I’d say it’s the revival of the century, but there are 91 years to go. Nevertheless, I hope that it’s still running in seven years so that its original producer Garth Drabinsky can get to see it, too.

1 comment:

Best Musical said...

Thanks for your really thoughtful review of "Ragtime." You've convinced me to more seriously pursue watching it - before I had it placed in the "fluff" genre, but it seems like now it's one of the best musicals.