BOTTOM LINE: An engaging and powerful revival which, in many ways, surpasses the effect of the original.
Ragtime made me cry and I'm not a crier. It also provoked a moment in me where I thought to myself, "Terra, if you don't get it together this very second, you're going to make the shift from tearing, to obnoxious theater over-crier." I didn't make the shift, but t was close. In my defense, it wasn't really my fault. This revival of the original 1998 Broadway production capitalizes on every opportunity to draw the audience into the world of the play and then overwhelm them with the size, intensity and perhaps most of all relevance of the production.
In theory, the Ragtime revival is a scaled down version of the original. The cast size and sets are two areas in particular that are dramatically scaled back. Despite this, the production feels colossal. There are few set changes to speak of, but the scenic design by Derek McLane is one of the stars of the show. His three tier, gritty, industrial design couldn't be further from the complex, elaborate set that functioned as a budget crusher in the original version, but it is equally effective. Likewise, though the number of cast members has been scaled back to forty, it at times feels like there are too many people on stage to count. This is largely due to the insightful and resourceful direction by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Dodge takes a show with a colossal cast, a daunting set, a big reputation and a story line that effectively illustrates the lives of an entire generation of Americans, and pulls from all of that a million intimate subtleties. There are characters, such as the historical Matthew Henson played by Terence Archie, that appear on stage for fleeting moments but are so completely realized, that they stay with you long after the show is over.
What struck me the most intensely about this show was how emotionally moving it is. There are countless show that try to show what's wrong with the world, and suggest that there is hope for the future. I'm a part-time cynic so I usually roll my eyes at them, but Ragtime manages to do so with sincerity and urgency, under the guise of a pretty, well-acted musical with a gorgeous score. Maybe I'm easy to trick, but it got me. In some ways, it's unfortunate that it can. The issues portrayed in Ragtime should be historical, not modern. Racism, the oppression of women and the false premise of the American Dream should be issues well behind us and too many of them aren't.
Having the good fortune of seeing the original production of Ragtime a little more than a decade ago, it's impossible for me to see the revival and not compare. The original production was statelier, perhaps a bit grander and was largely a showcase for a vocal powerhouse cast. The current revival is none of these things. It's darker, wittier, and while none of the vocals were poor, they were overshadowed by some of the best ensemble acting I can recollect. I went in concerned that I would be bored by a heartless revival, but instead I was impressed with the attention paid to the material and what appears to be sincere effort to communicate a story to the audience.
There are a few flaws of course. What sticks out most in my mind is a horridly designed, bottomless, foot powered, Model-T that is supposed to represent a valued possession, but instead took me out of Ragtime and set me firmly in the world of the Flintstones every time it appeared on stage adding an unintentional comic edge to otherwise intense scenes. Details like this are unfortunate, but largely irrelevant. Ragtime delivers as a spectacle, as an entertaining evening and as a poignant piece of theater.
(Ragtime plays at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street. Performances are currently Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm and Sunday at 7:30pm. Tickets are $45-$125 with a limited number of $26.50 rush tickets available via lottery at the box office two hours prior to show time. For tickets visit ticketmaster.com. For more show info visit ragtimebroadway.com.)