Playbill Critics Circle: Your Ragtime Reviews

News   Playbill Critics Circle: Your Ragtime Reviews
Ragtime the new musical by Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally, opened Dec. 8 in Toronto. The Toronto critics loved it, as did some American critics, though others felt the creators still had work to do.

Ragtime the new musical by Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally, opened Dec. 8 in Toronto. The Toronto critics loved it, as did some American critics, though others felt the creators still had work to do.

We've already asked Playbill On-Line members what they think of the CD of the score, now we ask our Toronto users who have actually seen the show: what do YOU think of the show? Is it the defining musical of the time, as some would have it? Is it just a good show? Or does major construction still need to be done?

What were your favorite and least favorite parts? What where the most and least effective songs? Where does the show fit -- in the history of musicals, in the oeuvres of its creators, in the careers of its stars? Most importantly, when you're sitting there in the Ford Center, how does the show make you feel? What happens inside you?

Please e-mail your reviews to Playbill On-Line managing editor Robert Viagas at Answers will be posted as they come in.Here are the results so far:

From DaveWirth:
I had the pleasure of seeing RAGTIME in Toronto, at the beautiful Ford Centre, on December 28th. After reading numerous rave reviews and listening to the "Songs from RAGTIME " album, prior to the performance, I was somewhat prepared for a memorable night in the theatre. However, I don't think I could have been adequately prepared for the fantastic evening it turned out to be.
RAGTIME is touching and thrilling - and at times brilliant. It starts big and ends big (with a cast of nearly 60 and orchestra of 28.) This show is truly something special.
The extended opening number, which borrows elements from shows like GRAND HOTEL and EVITA, introduces the musical's characters and sets the tone for the evening: It works like a charm - the music, costumes, scenery, lighting and marvelous staging working together to create one of the best opening numbers I can remember.
The Flaherty/Ahrens score, while a tier below Broadway's best, is quite good and does a nice job of blending the ragtime theme with the musical themes of the story and the main characters. Plus, the music affords the audience the pleasure of listening to three of Broadway's best singers: Marin Mazzie, Mark Jacoby and Audra McDonald (each in excellent voice - though I wish Jacoby had more opportuniites to use his.....) - as well as contributions by the singing actor Peter Friedman (just loved him in TV's BROOKLYN BRIDGE) and the wonderful chorus.
Then, there is Brian Mitchell, replacement star of JELLY's LAST JAM and KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, who finally gets to originate a Bway starring role in this production. HIS replacement will have a tough act to follow, as Mr. Mitchell's Coalhouse is a marvel. He acts, dances, sings and breathes such life into this character that his loss (the death of his girl, Sarah) is OUR loss. His mere presence lights up the stage. His strong, expressive and impressive singing voice and characterization will long be remembered. The performance of the year, for sure - if not of many years. Despite his impresseive resume, I am sure people will wonder - as I did: Where has this guy REALLY been all these years??? He's that good. The TONY is his, no question.
Another valuable contribution has been made by the set designer, Eugene Lee, who has created a striking railroad station like proscenium framework (borrowing heavily from and quite reminiscent of the stairs, bridges and factory glass of his SWEENEY TODD foundry set) within which the action takes place. To change the setting, a beam slides here, a bridge travels there and a photo of a train platform or a factory wall drop falls into place to complete the look. Nice work.
Despite being an American/Canadian musical, RAGTIME, too, has a bit of the stagecraft audience have come to expect in the big British shows. However, here it is usually used to make a subtle statement: a soft rain or snow falls to add another layer to a scene. A flare arcs up and fireworks go off at appropriate times. Atlantic City's famed Boardwalk mystically rises from the ground. Two ships pass in the distance. Houdini disappears and reappears before your eyes (not to mention his eyepopping entrance in the opening number.) And, when have gunshots actually been used so well to advance the story?
Credit director Frank Galati and chereographer Graciela Danielle for creating a wonderfully inventive show. It is a delight to watch and hear. From the knockout title number to the crowd pleasing "Henry Ford" and the patriotic finale, their hard work shows.
As the show was only a month old when I saw it, it is hard to believe it was running so smoothly. There are only a few obvious things that need to be fixed, among them a few weak lyrics ("Are you angry or possibly grieving?") and a weak song ("I Have A Feeling" is NOT better than the song it replaced,) and a few loose ends in the show's book (Shouldn't we SEE Tateh get his "Buffalo Nickel" in the first act, before devoting a whole song to it later? Why does Sarah really bury her baby? - maybe a new song would be right, here...) However, in the show's continuing evolution, I am sure these things will be fixed. Otherwise, it is very solid.
So, is RAGTIME one of the all time greats? Probably not. But, to me, it is miles ahead of the "wannabe" musicals with pop scores, like LES MIZ and SAIGON, that have overrun Bway in the last 10 years. It packs a similar emotional wallop, but is more honest in how it gets that reaction: with real talent, not with "Top 40" hits and spinning barricades.
It is a compelling new work, which showcases many fine artists - on and off stage - operating at the top of their games. There are songs to hum and scenes that make you weep and moments to ponder. And you leave a little wiser.
Can't wait to see it again.
(I've also had a great time casting future productions: Hinton Battle as Coalhouse, Judy Kuhn as Mother, Brent Barrett as Father, Chip Zien as Tateh, etc. . . .) (1/6/97)

From BuffJimm:
I was fortunate enough to see "Ragtime" at the Ford Center in Toronto on Thursday, Dec 5th, three days before its official opening. From the opening montage of dual stereoscopic images blending into one while the scrim lifts to reveal much of the cast, the audience is forewarned that it is in for an equisite theatrical experience.
"Ragtime" does not disappoint; the entire production is stunning from start to finish. The direction, by Frank Galati, ensures that each scene is finely crafted to smoothly tell the three over lapping stories of a WASP family, a Jewish immigrant and his daughter, and Coalhouse Walker, a black pianist who is representative of the newly emerging civil rights movement. Characters are not only well acted, but well sung. Brian Stokes Mitchell takes your breath away as Coalhouse Walker. Audra McDonald shines as Sara, Steven Sutcliffe is superb as Mother's Younger Brother, and Marin Mazzie is wonderful as Mother, especially in her big second act solo, "Back to Before." Other cast members include Peter Friedman, Mark Jacoby, Lynette Perry and Camille Saviola.
"Ragtime" as a story succeeds by mixing fictitious characters with historic ones in its tale of a rapidly changing America at the beginning of the twentieth century. As a musical, it also succeeds in mixing different types of music to create a melting pot of styles, sounds, songs and movement. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty have created a beautiful collection of ballads, duets, and ensemble songs which develop characters and advance the story.
This production is Broadway-ready and sensational! GO SEE IT!!! (12/12/96)

From Alan (
I saw the show in previews, and if the performance I saw was anything to judge by there is very little work that needs to be done. It's one hell of a show! It's certainly packs an emotional punch, without being over sentimental.
The show manages to balance out the stories of Coalhouse Walker, Mother, and the Jewish immigrant Tateh, more or less equally. Naturally the story of Coalhouse and his quest for justice is the most dramatic.
Terrence McNally has written an excellent book. Fictional and non-fictional characters interact effectively throughout the show, and although the story is epic in scope, basically the show is about people, people you care about. A rarity amongst today's musicals.
Flaherty and Ahrens' score is superb. The excerpts heard on the recent CD release only begin to scratch the surface. Flahery has written some incredibly haunting melodies, and Ahren's lyrics fit the piece perfectly. They're not showy, they do the job, beautifully. Not all of the musical numbers are complete songs. Dialogue is often weaved throughout the musical numbers. There's a delightful, albeit short, number in act one ("Nothing Like the City") when Mother first meets Tateh. It is stunning in its simplicity and charm. Early in act two there is an incredible montage number called "Coalhouse Demands" which is not only a well written piece, but is staged with breathtaking speed, utilising the complete cast, amazing set changes and superb lighting effects. All theatrical elements combine dazzlingly with incredible results.
The staging seems deceptively simple. Although there are some very impressive set pieces, some of the numbers are performed with a character standing alone onstage, singing out to the audience. It works brilliantly. This is what musical theatre should be. We don't need three hours full of special effects to dazzle us when the material itself is more than capable of doing that. In many cases, the show proves the "less is more" adage.
There isn't much dancing, as such, in the show. No halting of the action while a dance routine is performed. Graciela Daniele's musical staging is of the highest order. The choreography blends beuatifully with the action on stage, even the "Getting Ready Rag" is choreographed so that Coalhouse is actually getting ready to go meet Sarah as the song is being performed. I sincerely hope that Miss Daniele gets her long overdue Tony Award this time round. It will be well deserved if only for her staging of the opening number,"Ragtime." I have not seen such an exciting opening number since "Tradition" in "Fiddler on the Roof." And I have to add that I was incensed to read Clive Barnes' comments about the "limp choreography." Did this man see the same show?
There was very little I didn't like about the show. I did feel that Lynette Perry was wasted in the role of Evelyn Nesbitt. Her "Crime of the Century" number introduces us to the character early in the first act, and then we hardly see her again until the Atlantic City number in the scond act. Her duet with Houdini, "The Showbiz" (since replaced) was charming and fun, but it brought the show to a temporary halt.
The performances were, without exception, excellent. It seems grossly unfair to single out individuals, but Audra McDonald's Sarah was heartbreaking. Marin Mazzie - I can't find adequate words to describe how brilliant her performance was. And Brian Stokes Mitchell gives what will probably be the performance of a lifetme.
As you may have guessed, I loved this show. On leaving the theatre my one wish was that I could go straight back in and see it all over again. A Canadian TV critic commented that he could think of no better musical to close the century with. Sentiments I heartily endorse. (12/12/96)

From aforsyth:
I have seen the production of Ragtime twice, the first preview and opening night, and while I LOVE the CD and I fell in love with the show and most of performers (espcically Marin Mazzie) last spring when I saw the final workshop of the show. Both times I have seen the show, I don't like the production. It's not that I hate the show, I just think that they turned a beautiful musical in to an overblown, over-produced mega-musical, when it is not called for. Marin Mazzie seems lost in her character as Mother. I think the direction of her scene is to blame. I find her over-singing to compensate, and she doesn't need to.
I still like a lot of the show: the music, Audra [McDonald], Brian Stokes Mitchell, I think the production design is too much. and the shows seems very disjointed. But who am I? The critics and audiences LOVE IT! (12/12/96)

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