Review: Ragtime

Originally reviewed for

Ragtime dials the clock way back, looking at the emergence of ragtime in the 1900s. It doesn’t tell the story of that music’s evolution; instead, it uses it as a metaphor for the convulsive changes then happening in America. Based on E.L. Doctorow’s epic novel set in New York’s combustible melting pot, Ragtime in fact weaves together three distinct stories — those of a sheltered New Rochelle housewife, a indomitable Jewish immigrant on the poverty-stricken Lower East Side and a passionate young Harlem piano player.

I didn’t see the 1998 Broadway debut of Ragtime; my first exposure to it was Stafford Arima’s 2005 production at Paper Mill Playhouse. The Arima production and this one (directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge) share a heated minimalism, as well as a lead actor, Quentin Earl Darrington as ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker. In both productions, Darrington makes Coalhouse the soul of the show, playing him with real danger, passion and sorrow.

Other standout performances include Christiane Noll giving a surprising wryness to the WASPy “Mother” and Bobby Steggart as surely the most earnest (and cutest) “Young Brother” ever. Robert Petkoff brings great humanity and humor to the role of Orchard Street artist turned filmmaker Tateh. Derek McLane’s set is a masterpiece of functional elegance and flexibility. Santo Loquasto’s costumes tell a story all by themselves, especially his vaudeville costumes for Evelyn Nesbit.

As for the show itself, I’m not in love with the tendency of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist to do “stand downstage center” arias. Ragtime’s strongest moment are the ensemble numbers, including the rousing title song (which Dodge has stage with great intensity and intelligence) and “New Music.” All in all, a very strong entry in the musical season.

For tickets, click here.

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