PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Ragtime — The Music of Something Beginning, Again

By Harry Haun
16 Nov 2009

Also coming on strong to Broadway for the first time are Quentin Earl Darrington and Stephanie Umoh as the tragic lovers who become casualties of their time. They're filling some pretty big shoes: a Tony-nominated Brian Stokes Mitchell and a Tony-winning Audra McDonald.

Sarah may be the shortest role ever to win a Tony — "just six lines of dialogue, and three or four songs," said the actress now inhabiting the part. "What I like most about playing her is she's challenging. You practically have to mime the entire show. She's not in it very much, but her spirit is throughout the show, and she affects all of these people and creates passion in people who don't normally have passion."

As the man she propels into a murderous rampage (Coalhouse vs. the fire house), Darrington strikes a properly commanding figure. "Not only is it emotionally demanding, but it's physically demanding, too," he confessed. "But that is why I love the role. I love that challenge. It keeps me on my toes. It keeps me fresh. It keeps me from having different avenues to go down, and you just love that as an actor."

He was taking his Broadway debut in a deliberate, measured manner. "Funny, I'm amazingly grounded right now. There's a reason for that: I wanted to take my time tonight. I didn't want anything tonight to be rushed. I didn't want to miss anything. It's like a wedding day. You only get one — well, one first — but, with your Broadway debut, you only get one of those. I'm kinda sad it's coming to an end, but I'm taking my time to take it all in and meet everyone and have a great time tonight."

Christiane Noll, who Broadway-bowed as the blonde vanilla-wafer who was Jekyll & Hyde's main-squeeze, is now a redheaded woman-in-charge in the pivotal role of Mother, and she is loving it. "What is there not to like?" she asked not unreasonably. "Like, the 11 o'clock number. Like, she has one of the most amazing arcs ever written for any female character in musical theatre. All that, and she gets to kiss Robert Petkoff, which is not bad, either. It's an awesome role."

She is primary caretaker for the Walker baby that she found abandoned in her garden, constantly cradling him — "like an appendage," complains her husband. The bundle does vary in size. " Yes, the baby grows a little bigger, a little heavier. I get to practice, which is really good. It's wonderful because I miss my little girl so much."

She and her husband, actor Jamie LaVerdiere, have a nine-month-old daughter. He was the one standing out of camera shot, holding her purse. "I'm the boyfriend in 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall,'" he cracked, "but happily so."

Her favorite moment on stage is a scene with Petkoff's Tateh that has a soft romantic undertow. "Because the scene has become more about what is not said rather than what's on the page, and I love the interplay between the two of them."

Her other favorite moment in the play is one she witnesses in the wings, watching her stage husband and son at work. "I just stand there and giggle, watching how Ron Bohmer looks at Christopher Cox during the baseball scene."

Petkoff had a few references for his Tateh, he said. "I thought of Sam Goldwyn because of his malapropisms. My own grandfather, as well, was kinda like that so I kinda thought of him as I was doing this. Doctorow describes him as this geriatric young man because there's so much weight on his shoulders at the beginning of the play, but I feel like he uses it as the play goes on. He's got such heart. He's got such passion. He runs into so many trials and tribulations — and yet he never says die.

"First of all, to play someone with that much passion is wonderful, but to act what we go through, we have to have that passion, that same drive, that when obstacles are thrown up, you say, 'You know what? I'm not going to give up.' He's inspired by Houdini — just as we as actors are inspired by our own heroes."

Bohmer's Forbidden Broadway training comes in handy in making Father less of a stiff prig. He falls out of the picture, with no love loss from Mother or the audience.

The actor brought more info about the character: "The novel gives you a little sense of what happened to Father, why he was on the Lusitania," he offered. "Younger brother developed the explosives that were used in the Morgan Library, and Younger Brother left the plans for those to Father. The military wanted them for World War I. That's why he was on the Lusitania, taking explosives to the Allies."

Bobby Steggert pulls out all the stops, playing Mother's Younger Brother who turns out to be very susceptible to women in the spotlight — whether they're Evelyn Nesbit or Emma Goldman. Both send him down radically different paths. "It takes a lot of emotional, physical and vocal energy to play this," Steggert said of the quixotic character. "I love that he transforms so completely. He starts as this very innocent young man and becomes an incredibly impassioned adult."

Real-life characters brought out the research in certain actors. "I did a lot of research via the Emma Goldman Papers Project at Berkeley," said Donna Migliaccio, who plays that strong-lunged anarchist. "They could not have been more helpful." But she has yet to avail herself of Maureen Stapleton's superb, Oscar-winning portrayal in "Reds" ("I've been sorta saving that to watch later.")

Nor did Savannah Wise dig deeply into "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" for Joan Collins' less-than-Oscar-winning rendition of Evelyn Nesbit, the dame at the heart of the Stanford White-Harry K. Thaw shootout who traded on those sensationalized headlines to make a name for herself in peripheral showbiz.

"I love being in this show," she allowed. "I mean, it's a little girl's dream to stand center stage in the spotlight in a fancy costume. Right?" She hasn't met Lynette Perry, who originated the role, and is now wed to this Ragtime's lead producer, Kevin McCollum , "but I remember seeing her come in on that swing and going 'Oooh, that's what I want to do when I grow up.'" And, darn if she isn't!

First-nighters included Wise's father, Scott Wise and fellow Jerome Robbins' Broadway Tony winner Jason Alexander, Mario Cantone and actor-director Jerry Dixon (whose Barnstorming play about early aviation goes up, up and away in Atlanta in January), actress-producer Tamara Tunie, whose crooner-hubby, Gregory Generet, has a gig at Feinstein's Nov. 16, Rosie Perez, Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb of "The Today Show," U.S. Representative Barney Frank, Tony winner Laura Benanti (gearing up for the Nov. 19 opening of In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play at the Lyceum) and hubby Steven Pasquale (who's finishing up his "Rescue Me" season right now), Lillias White (who's supplying auxiliary energy — as if any more were needed — to Fela! which bows Nov. 23 at the Eugene O'Neill), Brian d'Arcy James (due Jan. 28 in Time Stands Still at the Samuel J. Friedman) and Montego Glover of Memphis.