Monday, December 21, 2009

Ragtime disappoints

I’m back after a longer-than-anticipated intermission, owing to other commitments that have kept me away from these pages, although, I hasten to add, not from the theater. So there is much catching up to do over the holiday break, with eight shows to report on.

I want to use today’s entry as an opportunity to explain a little bit of what it is that I look for as an avid theatergoer while I share my impressions of Ragtime: The Musical.

Let me begin by saying there is much to appreciate and admire in the revival of Ragtime, the many-layered musical based on the 1975 historical novel of the same title by author E. L. Doctorow.

If my choice of words (“appreciate and admire”) makes it sound as though I am trying to find a polite way of indicating I didn’t care much for Ragtime, then you’ve picked up on my message. One thing you should know about me is that I don’t go to a show hoping to appreciate and admire it; that noncommittal phrase is something I save for some of the paintings and sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but not for the living arts.

What I want from the theater is to be viscerally engaged, to be drawn in by characters who have interesting stories to tell AND about whom I can empathize or, at least, sympathize. That is simply not possible with Ragtime, which is about the grand sweep of events rather than about the characters, who stay tantalizingly out of reach.

I am not comparing the current revival of Ragtime with the original production of a decade ago, which I did not see but which left me with the lingering impression I had missed a breakthrough piece of theater. Certainly, with such performers as Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Marin Mazzie leading the way, the singing, at least, must have been terrific, although the production itself had a reputation of being overblown and extravagantly expensive, boasting not only a large cast but an all-out bombast of production values that included fireworks and a working Model-T Ford.

For this revival, they nixed the fireworks and replaced the Model-T with a skeletal chassis. But still, with a cast of 30 or so (I lost count), and an orchestra only slightly smaller, this remains quite a hefty production.

I do want to make it clear that the problem I have with Ragtime is not about a lack of talent or the loving care with which this revival has been produced. The problem is that the show itself just does not work satisfactorily, or, to be more fair, to my satisfaction. Indeed, if it weren’t for the iconic opening title number, which beautifully captures the mood and theme of the show, and the recurrent ragtime music throughout the production, there would be little left for me to admire or appreciate.

Playwright Terrence McNally, who wrestled Doctorow’s novel into submission, has done a stellar job of separating out the three major story strands and of giving the many characters who take turns sharing center stage enough individualism so that the audience can, without referring to a scorecard, keep track of who’s who. Likewise, the 30+ numbers by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) move the storyline forward in ways that allow the performers to shine individually and collectively in the spotlight. But to what ends?

Therein lies my frustration as a theatergoer. In telling such a grandiose story—the story of America (or at least the story of the greater New York region) at the turn of the 20th Century—the creators forgot about the people whose lives are the story of America. America can’t be the central character, yet apparently it is.

Of the two acts, Act I is the stronger. It moves logically from the general to the specific—starting with the glorious opening number that introduces us simultaneously to three worlds: the African American community, the newly-arrived collective of Jewish immigrants, and the upscale and sheltered Wasp-y world of New York City’s northern suburbs. By the time Act I has ended, the story has narrowed, and ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. has taken command of our attention. We do care. We are outraged at all he has been forced to face. We want justice. We want to know what will happen to him and to his son. We can’t wait until the intermission has ended to find out.

And then the orchestra brings us back. And the story of Coalhouse Walker Jr. has to wait and wait and wait while the story of Mother and Tateh unfolds. It’s not that we don’t like Mother and Tateh, or that we aren’t taken by their sweet budding romance. But, geez, what happened to the show? By the time we finally get back to Coalhouse’s story, we don’t care all that much anymore. Ragtime distances itself from us so that Coalhouse’s unhappy fate is nothing more than the inevitable unrolling of history. Indeed, it turns out that all of the characters, despite every effort by a strong cast of performers to humanize them, are merely symbolic representations of people.

Ragtime, the book, followed a similar path, but Doctorow managed to create memorable characters by taking enough time and care with their individual development so that we could feel their aliveness. No one expects a musical to be able to paint as rich a portrait as a fully developed novel, but Ragtime, the musical, sinks under the weight of its own pretentiousness so that, in the end, viewing it is akin to reading a boring chapter in a boring history textbook. You can’t “revive” something that never had life in it to begin with.

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