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David Finkle praises the Paper Mill Playhouse production of this great Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens-Terrence McNally musical.

Garrett Eucker, Rachel York, Shonn Wiley,
Jeff Cyronek, and Quentin Earl Darrington
in Ragtime
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
When Ragtime opened in New York at the beginning of 1998, I concluded that it was the indisputably great musical for the end of the century, rather neatly complementing Show Boat in terms of its inspired score, serious subject matter, and humanity. It was a triumph for the now-in-ill-repute producer Garth Drabinsky, who -- on a wise tip from associate Marty Bell -- had pretty much created the piece from scratch. Now that the Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens-Terrence McNally show is being revived at the Paper Mill Playhouse in a production directed by Stafford Arima, I see no reason to change my opinion. This shrewd musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's magnificent 1975 look at the turbulent melting pot that was early 20th-century America is giving every indication that it will withstand the test of time.

This isn't line-for-line, note-for-note the Ragtime that played Broadway; it's the somewhat stripped-to-essentials version that was first seen in London. Fans who are scrupulous about such things will notice that a very small percentage of the original score is gone and that some of the action has been accelerated. Moreover, the production's look and feel -- sets and costumes by Robert Jones, lighting by Mark Stanley, sound design by Peter Hylenski -- is pared down from the Drabinsky extravaganza.

Yet the less-is-more approach has the effect of making Doctorow's narrative even more iconic than it initially was. The interlocking stories, as McNally carefully and cleverly lifted them from Doctorow's pages, now more clearly divulge the quintessential tale of a teeming, diverse population forging a nation's future. Into his novel Doctorow brashly thrust real-life icons J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, Admiral Robert E. Peary, Evelyn Nesbit, and Harry Houdini. As additional icon candidates, he added a New Rochelle family (Father, Mother, Little Boy Edward and mother's Younger Brother); a Jewish immigrant called Tateh and his daughter; an African-American ragtime pianist named Coalhouse Walker Jr. and his lady love, Sarah.

While the celebrated historical characters continually exert their disparate influences, the New Rochelle family crosses paths with Tateh (Neal Benari), who inexorably follows a trajectory that leads him into movie-making, as was true of many Jews like him. Father (David Hess) and Mother (Rachel York), who increasingly don't see eye-to-eye on a woman's place, also become involved with Coalhouse (Quentin Earl Darrington), Sarah (Kenita Miller), and their baby son. When Sarah meets with tragedy in trying to right wrongs done, Coalhouse becomes an anarchist and Younger Brother (Shonn Wiley), who's good at blowing things up, abets him. As a result of the characters' many tribulations, a newly minted (symbolic) American family is born. The image that Arima has come up with for the musical's close is a brilliant improvement on the touching original fade-out.

If he didn't have a cast that's up to the show's demands, Arima -- who most recently earned gold stars for his direction of Altar Boyz -- could only get so far with Ragtime. The same goes for music director David Loud, who leads a 19-piece orchestra, and choreographer Liza Gennaro. They've got the players they need, each of whom has talent to spare. There's not a weak performance among the leading and featured players, who separately and together deserve much more praise than space here permits.

York's Mother is a model of beauty and searching intelligence. (When last seen, York was gracing the inferior Ahrens-Flaherty show Dessa Rose; her casting in Ragtime is something like worker's compensation.) Miller's voice is pure as first light, and the smile that she displays as Sarah stretches from one side of the proscenium to the other. Benari's Tateh evolves grippingly from expectant to commanding. Hess sings beautifully as Father and captures the fellow's male intransigence. Wiley is at once innocent and gritty as Younger Brother, while Darrington delivers Coalhouse's anthems with full impact. (Perhaps, as some of the show's analysts have suggested, there's one anthem too many in this sumptuous score; but which one would the carpers excise?) Debra Cardona is a properly fiery and ethnic Emma Goldman, Matthew Scott an intense Harry Houdini, and Betsy Wolfe a giddy Evelyn Nesbit. The ensemble singing is flawless.

In trimming Ragtime, some of the frills that a higher budget affords are admittedly absent. The loss of Evelyn Nesbit's swing is unfortunate, and the trashing of the Model T Ford of which Coalhouse is so proud doesn't pack as strong a wallop when the automobile in question is indicated by two straight-backed chairs. As in the first production, there's a bridge above the stage for actors to cross; but whereas the Drabinsky bridge moved, this one is stationery, so the memorable effect of lowering the bridge as if to crush assembly-line workers is gone. But these are, to use an apropos figure of speech, only minor riffs that have gone missing; Ragtime's basic melody remains immutably vigorous.


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