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Ragtime Returns to Broadway

On Oct. 23, previews of the revival of the 1998 Broadway musical Ragtime opened at the Neil Simon Theater.

Ragtime is the story of three groups-the rich white families of New Rochelle, the black community of Harlem and the immigrants who inhabited the tenements of New York City-at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow of the same name, the complex story line intertwines fictional characters with real historical figures including Emma Goldman (Donna Migliaccio), Booker T. Washington (Eric Jordan Young), Henry Ford (Aaron Galligan-Stierle), J.P. Morgan (Michael X. Martin), Harry Houdini (Jonathan Hammond) and Evelyn Nesbit (Savannah Wise).

The lives of these characters, both fictional and real, and the chance encounters and interactions that bring them together make for an incredible story that questions justice, race and what, exactly, is the American dream.

Each of the three groups is comprised of a few principle characters and a small ensemble. The wealthy New Rochelle white community is represented by a family comprised of Mother (Christiane Noll), Father (Ron Bohmer), The Little Boy (Christopher Cox), Mother’s Younger Brother (Bobby Steggert) and Grandfather (Dan Manning).

The very well off family’s normal life is thrown off course when Father leaves to go on an expedition to the North Pole with Admiral Peary (also Michael X. Martin) and Mother finds a newborn black baby boy buried in her garden.

Though Mother is trapped in the private sphere and is generally subordinate to her husband, she takes the opportunity to take matters into her own hands while Father is not home. She decides to take in the baby and his mother, Sarah (Stephanie Umoh). Mother is a woman who, though she is trapped in the household, is a sort of a revolutionary in the way she thinks and acts, as is her Younger Brother. Christine Noll did a fantastic job showing Mother’s many emotions, and has a tremendous voice. I would go as far as to say that I think she deserves to win a Tony for her stellar performance.

As all of this is going on in New Rochelle, in Harlem, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Quentin Earl Darrington) is planning on going to court Sarah, who left him. He buys a Model T to impress her and drives to New Rochelle every Sunday to try to get her to take him back. He learns that Sarah has had his child, but she always refuses to see him. Mother decides to invite him in, and Coalhouse, a professional pianist, plays a new form of music, ragtime, for the family (‘New Music’). When Sarah hears Coalhouse playing, she runs down to him. The reunited lovers dream about the future for their child (‘Wheels of a Dream’).

The beautiful, hopeful song is done extremely well by the couple, whom are both making their Broadway debuts. I couldn’t believe that they were not seasoned Broadway veterans, as they were absolutely fantastic. While all of this is going on, Tateh (Robert Petkoff) and his daughter, The Little Girl (Sarah Rosenthal), Latvian immigrants, are having a rough time getting adjusted to life in New York City. Tateh always dreams of success and a better life for his daughter, and will not stop working until he finds it.

Throughout the show, the families’ lives intersect and each person is changed in some way. For these families at the turn of the century, old traditions and processes are challenged, as new ideas and lessons are learned through the experiences and interactions they have with each other.

Stephen Flaherty’s score is powerful and intricate, with reoccurring melodies being an integral part of the story line. The cast did more than do the score justice. The vocals were powerful and filled the theater with the sound of Ragtime. At first, I wondered why the set seemed sparse. It was comprised of levels of iron scaffolding and moving staircases.

However, more set was definitely not needed. The levels were used to represent class, putting the wealthy real historical figures like J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford above the poor immigrants. Throughout the show, the level of some characters changed as they grew wealthier and more successful.

The actors’ powerful vocals and amazing interactions filled in any gaps that there may have been in the set, forcing the audience to focus on the story. The piano Coalhouse played and the Model T were really only the skeletons of the objects. I interpreted the sparse set and props as further emphasis on the importance of the story that was being told, rather than allowing props and set to distract the viewer.

The story was also told through their costumes, beautiful period-pieces that hinted at the colors of the American flag with the New Rochelle whites in white, the people of Harlem in red tones and the immigrants in coolers blues.

Ragtime is an incredible story, and I’m so glad that it is being told again. The show is incredibly well done, to say the least. The cast was phenomenal in every sense. The rest of the audience agreed with me-they received a standing ovation as soon as they hit the last note. I’ve seen a number of musicals on Broadway, and never have I seen a standing ovation happen so quickly.

For an afternoon, I was transported from the year 2009 to the turn of the century, and experienced the emotional highs and lows along with the characters. I think that many of the issues explored in Ragtime still exist today. That may have been what director Marcia Milgrom Dodge was hinting at with the sort of modern set.

I hope that audiences will get to experience the incredible score and story that is Ragtime for years to come-the lessons to be learned from the show, in my opinion, are vital. The show opens officially on November 15, at the Neil Simon Theater.’

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