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

By Harry Haun
November 16, 2009

It's not a ragtag Ragtime that returned to Broadway Nov. 15 at the Neil Simon Theatre, but the style-over-spectacle revival imported from the Kennedy Center has been scaled down to accessible human size from the sprawling saga that spilled all over the cavernous Ford Center for the Performing Arts a dozen years ago.

A good thing, contended the show's Tony-winning creators (librettist Terrence McNally, lyricist Lynn Aherns and composer Stephen Flaherty), who were brought on stage by cast members at evening's end, along with their current leader, director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, and the father of 'em all, novelist E. L. Doctorow, for a well-earned bow.

Doctorow's deep-dish serving of 1906-vintage Americana, when the country was reeling from a socioeconomic tsunami that upended the barriers separating people, mixes fact and fancy to great dramatic effect. High-profile history-makers (Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Admiral Peary, Evelyn Nesbit) rub elbows awkwardly, uncomfortably with Everyman types (Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother, Grandfather, The Little Boy, The Little Girl).

Also in the fictional camp is Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem piano-player, and his lover, Sarah, a cleaning woman, dreaming of bettering themselves. More or less caught in the middle of this clash of class, they are martyrs of that friction. A far happier fate awaits Tateh, a Jewish immigrant who, not unlike Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn, finds his American dream in the hills of Hollywood.

These three storylines come at you in a sweep of change, and the stage for this is immediately established by Derek McLane's spare set which introduces the 40-member cast on three tiers of scaffolding segregating blacks, whites and immigrants. Even Coalhouse's piano and his Tin Lizzy get the skeletal treatment.

Tavern on the Green was a shrewd choice for an after-party site, seeming much like an extension of the bright, white world of the New Rochelle Caucasian contingent.

In an alcove just off the hall of mirrors, the creatives told the press how content they were with the less-is-more approach to Ragtime no fuss, no feathers, just fine.

"I think the show itself steps forward," said Ahrens when asked what was gained by taking Ragtime down an octave or two. "It takes a step forward when our eyes are not as distracted. It's in a small house now. Somehow, all the resonances of the show the score, the book, the storytelling it all comes front and center."

Flaherty agreed:. "We sorta discovered when we were doing the London West End production, which was a more of a pared-down production the orchestra was actually on the stage but I felt the music and the drama were the center of the piece as opposed to visual spectacle. We made some slight nips and tucks since the Kennedy Center so it's running even quicker now. The important thing is we wanted to make sure that we didn't compromise any of the story and that all the dramatic moments were really landing so the payoffs would be there later in the show. It's wonderful, and it's exciting, to sit in the audience and just see them take that ride."

McNally seconded that. "It has been that way from the first preview as well," he beamed. "It's not like opening night where they're really enthusiastic. We get that every night. It's pretty exciting. We cut a line here, bars of music there, but it's 98 percent the same show. There's nothing new. What's changed is society. I think the theatre makes a big difference. You can touch the people. It's a very clean, emotional production. The Ford Center was a bit like we were doing it at The Metropolitan Opera."

The playwright knows his opera. In fact, he'll have three nights at the opera at the Kennedy Center this spring — three opera-themed plays spinning in rep: Golden Age, a new backstage drama about launching Bellini's last opera, I Puritani, directed by Austin Pendleton (March 12-April 4, 2010); The Lisbon Traviata, directed by Christopher Ashley, with John Glover in the Nathan Lane role (March 20-April 11, 2010); and his Tony-winning Master Class, with Tyne Daly as Maria Callas (March 25-April 18, 2010).

Still missing in action from Ragtime is the Houdini trick that was the Act II curtain-raiser, "Welcome to Vaudeville." "Oh, that was Garth Drabinsky's idea," said McNally, meaning his now-convicted producer. "None of us wanted it. It took up five minutes!"

Flaherty grimaced at the memory. "Houdini used to escape from this giant box, and the authors were never a fan of that moment. We felt it was a fun entertainment, but it just wasn't the way that we really wanted to launch the act so, with this version, we're launching the act right back with the drama, with the Coalhouse story."

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Lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty
Photo by Aubrey Reuben
Sound-wise, Flaherty is delighted with the crew assembled by music coordinator John Miller. "We have 28 in the pit and orchestrations by Bill Brohn, who won the Tony for them before. The fact that the original number of musicians the full 28 are playing these amazing orchestrations is just great."

Director-choreographer Dodge, a 30-year member of SDC, is only now getting around to her Broadway bow, having worked "primarily in regionals," punctuated with a few Off-Broadway shows. "But I've had the pleasure of working with some of the greatest theatre artists who have been working over the past 30 years."

She includes the Ragtime triumvirate in that number. "The creatives were very hands on," she said. In point of fact, "they asked me to direct the show. Terrence has been watching my work at Bay Street Theatre for the past several years he and Tom Kirdahy, his partner and one of our producers and Lynn and Steve had seen a production of their Once on This Island that I had directed and choreographed at Bay Street, and then I got to do their Seussical for Theatreworks USA. When the Kennedy Center approached them about Ragtime, Terrence went to Lynn and Steve and said, 'What do you think about Marcia?' They said, 'Yeah. Let's give it to her. We'd love to see what she'll come up with.' So they basically said, 'Do what you did with Seussical.'"

This meant removing the kid gloves. "I had to put my reverence aside. I didn't want us to take it so seriously. I wanted us to really dig into the characters and found out who these people were and what they were struggling against and how to pursue those obstacles. You know, it's more than puttin' on a show when you're working on Ragtime, but I also didn't want to become intimidated by it. I wanted to dig in and roll up our sleeves and find out how these characters related to each other."

Next, Dodge will return to her roots. "I have some regional commitments I made before 'my big Broadway debut,' and I'll honor them. I'm doing Anything Goes down at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre in February, then I'm going to Reprise in Los Angeles to do How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."

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.