When the musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime premiered on Broadway, in 1998, New York Times critic Ben Brantley described it as lavish but lumbering, with “the feeling of an instructional diorama in a pavilion at a world’s fair.” Subsequent versions of Ragtime: The Musical sought to avoid those pitfalls, including the 2009 Broadway revival and a gorgeous Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival production last year.
Director Terrence J. Nolen’s Ragtime, at the Arden Theatre Company through Oct. 27, goes further yet in stripping away the spectacle and pageantry of the show. His production has a strong ensemble, and a fluid in-the-round staging, and the themes are undeniably relevant, but it’s not my favorite of Nolen’s many brilliantly reimagined musicals.
At once a celebration and critique of the American dream (one key ballad is titled “Wheels of a Dream”), Ragtime melds historical characters and incidents from the first decade of the 20th century with the intersecting stories of three fictional families (from Harlem, upper-crust New Rochelle, and the East European shtetl).
There is tragedy, particularly in the fate of Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Nkrumah Gatling, reprising his star turn in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival production), a musician turned avenger by the murderous toll of racism.
And there is also triumph, in the entrepreneurial coups of the Latvian Jewish immigrant, Tateh (Cooper Grodin), the feminist awakening of Mother (the magnificent Kim Carson), and the final vision of a tolerant, multicultural America.
The Tony Award-winning book by Terrence McNally ably compresses Doctorow’s arch and sprawling novel, though not without retaining some of its cartoonish aspects. McNally makes explicit some of the novel’s symbolism: Harry Houdini (the intense Skip Robinson) becomes the prototype of the successful immigrant, literally breaking his chains, while the anarchist Emma Goldman (the terrific Mary Tuomanen) incites a different kind of liberation.
The Tony Award-winning score (music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) uses ragtime music as a marker of rapidly changing times (“Prologue: Ragtime,” “New Music”) and incorporates East European folk melodies and lush, soaring Broadway anthems. “Your Daddy’s Son” (beautifully sung by Terran Scott as Sarah, Coalhouse’s love interest), “Coalhouse’s Soliloquy” and “Back to Beyond” (Carson’s great number) are highlights.
There’s a neat irony in Nolen’s stripped-down staging: Frank Galati, director of the original over-the-top Ragtime, was one of Nolen’s professors at Northwestern University, and Nolen says, in a director’s note, he had long avoided producing the show because it seemed “too large; too sweeping a story for our stage.”
He responded to the challenge by staging Ragtime with minimal scenery and props (the set design is by James Kronzer) and a versatile ensemble that plays piano, accordion, and other instruments. There are benches, risers, adequate period costumes by Levonne Lindsay, and dramatic, crimson-hued lighting by Thom Weaver. But the overall lack of visual excitement can make the two and a half-hour show seem overlong, even ponderous in its own way.
Then there is the little matter of the missing car. Coalhouse’s beloved Model T Ford symbolizes American manufacturing prowess, the rigors of the assembly line, and his own material success. It is the vandalism of his car by a racist fire chief that precipitates Coalhouse’s rebellion. It is integral to the plot. It inspires the lyrics of “Wheels of a Dream.”
Except in Nolen’s bare-bones Ragtime, there is no car: Just a piano, with a metal ring representing a steering wheel.
Ragtime: The Musical
Through Oct. 27 on the Arden Theatre Company’s F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. 2nd St.
Tickets: $18 and up, with dynamic pricing based on demand.