Sunday, January 10, 2010

Ragtime only makes it 10 days into 2010

Happy New Year, folks! I've finally returned after a much-too-long absence. My apologies! That problematic cocktail of school and work got the better of me, and my blogging fell by the wayside. But 2010 will bring a lot of changes, and most notably, a change of venue. That's right! My lovely roommate, Lindsey is busy designing me my very own website. (Sorry, blogspot.) I'll be sure to let you know when to expect the unveiling!

In the meantime, I'll be posting some new content over the next few days. I saw three shows this weekend, so there's plenty for me to talk about.

But enough of my preamble, here's my thoughts on Ragtime's closing ...

The Broadway revival of Ragtime played its final performance this afternoon at the Neil Simon Theatre, and though it’s a little bit sad, it doesn’t totally surprise me. Here’s why …

If you want to take up the celebrity argument, there were no recognizable names above the title. And really, when you can see Catherine Zeta-Jones or Scarlett Johansson or Ashlee Simpson-Wentz (what! what?) on any given night, the “name on everybody’s lips” surely wasn’t going to be Quentin Earl Darrington (who played Coalhouse Walker Jr.) or Christiane Noll (who played Mother).

Yet, Ragtime is a charming parade of our nation’s history from the turn of the century to the first World War. Based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, Terrence McNally’s script includes a prejudiced Anglo-Saxon, an African-American jazz musician, and an Eastern European immigrant artist. Sitting this side of the curtain, we suspend our disbelief that these unrelated individuals eventually become somewhat intertwined. But hey, this is the theater, and frankly too, this is America. That Ragtime sometimes plays out like more of a revue is ok because its soaring tunes are designed to warm your Yankee-doodle heart. (At the performance I attended, people were apt to give regular ovations throughout the show.)

Still, I left the Neil Simon Friday night feeling satisfied but not wowed. I sincerely enjoyed the score, the singing (especially Darrington’s) often made those little hairs on the back of my neck raise, and the story twice moved me to almost-tears. So, why the note of restraint in my voice when my friend asked if I had liked it, and I replied, “Yeah, it was really good.”

After a cab ride of contemplation, I decided that the nearly every character is a stereotype, and the story is history (as in, it was required reading in grade school.) Don’t get me wrong, stereotypes exist for a reason, and it’s important to remember where we’ve come from, but it doesn’t leave much room for creative storytelling. Instead Ragtime plays out as a tribute to our nation’s history, yet we know how the plot will twist before we get to the turn. The white man is rich and ignorant, the black man is oppressed but a revolutionary, and the Jewish immigrants are struggling to adjust to their new home. (In case you couldn’t discern this by the costuming, music & lyrics, or your general knowledge of the stars and stripes, each group lines up and dances its own distinctive dance during the opening number.) Of course everyone eventually learns to peaceably cohabitate in the melting pot of the US of A, though, true to the books, Ragtime shows that our sordid past is not without its casualties.

Now, this is not to say that a historical drama can’t be engaging or fresh. In fact, I found some of the most interesting characters to be Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, and Evelyn Nesbit. (Sure, these are based on the real historical figures, but maybe that’s precisely why they seemed the least 2-dimensional of the bunch.) The problem is that Ragtime tries to fit a text book of personalities into a just-under-3-hour musical, and it doesn’t work. There’s no room for character development when you have a cast of 34, so the audience doesn’t have much more than those tunes to hold onto. But Jersey Boys or Wicked, Ragtime is not, and people weren’t buying seats based on any prior familiarity with the music.

Just to reiterate, though, the score by Stephen Flattery and Lynn Ahrens is beautiful. And you’ve probably heard of some of these songs before (read: “Your Daddy’s Son”, and “Wheels of a Dream”) even though you may not think you have. (At least that was the case for me.)

For this production, the design has been paired down considerably from the 1998 original, which fashioned a model T onstage and real live fireworks. (Collective ooo and ahh!) Here, there’s a backbone, but most of the meat and potatoes are left to the imagination, which helps offset some of the weightiness of the script.

Given its sweeping score enhanced by an effective minimalist staging, it's a shame that more folks couldn’t have seen this revival. It came here after a successful run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., but it will have played only 65 regular performances as of today after opening on Nov. 15. Yet, even if an outpouring of support had welcomed this production to Broadway, I don’t believe Ragtime would have lasted past awards season.

When it comes down to it, it’s that bloated and predictable storyline that’s most responsible for my enthused-but-not-ecstatic embrace of Ragtime. First-time Broadway director Marcia Milgrom Dodge has done some good work here – this Ragtime revival taps into our American heritage and pride in such a way that it seems almost unpatriotic not to like it. But unfortunately, as is the case with revivals, it’s tough affix wheels to a show that was stagnant from its beginnings.
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For further reading on the Ragtime closing, I suggest this article from the LA Times written by critic Peter Marks of the Washington Post:
http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-ragtime5-2010jan05,0,5043018.story

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