RAGTIME, book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, directed by Frank Galati, Ford Center for the Performing Arts, New York.

Set between 1906 and 1915, E.L. Doctorow’s 1974 novel Ragtime whimsically surveys the dreams and crimes of a century. Interweaving fictional characters with famous figures such as Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and J.P. Morgan, it’s a cool, wise fairy tale that suggests that we learn from history but not in time to keep from repeating its mistakes.

To translate the novel to the stage, producer Garth Drabinsky assembled a stellar crew of Broadway talent under the direction of Frank Galati, who adapted and directed Steppenwolf Theater Company’s powerful 1990 stage version of The Grapes of Wrath. The show opens promisingly with a prologue that fleetly introduces a giant cast of immigrants, Negroes, and starchy white folks ritualistically converging in a replica of Penn Station. For a moment, it looks like Porgy and Bess meets Fiddler on the Roof in Our Town. Hopes run high. As it proceeds, though, the musical irons the kinks out of Doctorow’s quirky 20th century circus until it emerges as a stiff, earnest pageant populated by stick figures.

The bare-bones book by gay playwright Terrence McNally (Love! Valor! Compassion!) has the characters speak of themselves in the third person, which keeps them remote. And the historical figures are distilled to one-note running jokes. Emma Goldman, for instance, whom Doctorow portrayed as a shrewd and sexually knowing revolutionary, becomes a tiresome battleaxe (played by Judy Kaye) shouting slogans you’re never invited to take seriously. Even the proud black musician Coalhouse Walker’s tragic slide from self-esteem to self-destruction has no aftershock. It’s speedily erased by the sigh-inducing image of three children -- WASP, Jew, and black -- playing together in a sentimental vision of better days to come.

This Ragtime is a well-meaning liberal history lesson that wants to have it both ways. It wants to convey Doctorow’s ugly truth -- that America is a racist oligarchy that numbs the masses to sleep with pop culture -- yet winds up telling a pretty if uplifting lie.

The cast features numerous appealing performers with lovely Broadway voices, foremost among them Brian Stokes Mitchell as Coalhouse and Audra McDonald as his paramour Sarah. They, along with Peter Friedman as the peddler-turned-filmmaker Tateh and Marin Mazzie as the New Rochelle matron who has a feminist awakening, manage to expand beyond the outlines they’re given to play. But the score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty doesn’t capitalize on their individual strengths. The songs are all climax, modulating from loud to louder like one Celine Dion hit after another. Not until late in the second act does the exhausting parade of generic show-stoppers let up for a moment of levity (“Buffalo Nickel Photoplay Inc.”) or intimacy (“Sarah Brown Eyes”).

Ragtime will undoubtedly join the theme-park hits on Broadway. The producer’s deep-pockets advertising has seen to that. But it exposes the major artistic disadvantage of these calculated blockbusters. Because long runs require many replacements, the creators avoid writing parts that demand star quality. Even the leads in Cats, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera can be played by any number of blandly competent actors. You only have to think of a show like Sunday in the Park with George, tailored by Stephen Sondheim to the particular talents of Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, to realize the magic missing in musicals like Ragtime.

The Advocate, March 3, 1998

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