Feature

Stage: Ragtime

The Kennedy Center&rsquo;s revival of <em>Ragtime</em> is nothing short of &ldquo;astounding,&rdquo; said Mary Carole McCauley in the Baltimore <em>Sun.</em>

Kennedy Center for the Performing ArtsWashington, D.C.(202) 467-4600

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The Kennedy Center’s revival of Ragtime is nothing short of “astounding,” said Mary Carole McCauley in the Baltimore Sun. The musical, based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, has been given a “breathtaking” makeover with a $4.4 million budget and a cast of 37. This production’s centerpiece is a hulking, 8-ton, multitiered scaffolding, with each level representing one of the various groups that formed the melting pot of 1906 America. One tier houses an African-American pianist, Coalhouse Walker, and his sweetheart, Sarah. Another shows the life of Mother and Father, “an upper-middle-class” WASP family, and still another the life of Tateh, a recent Jewish immigrant from Latvia. The top tier is reserved for the era’s most important figures, from Booker T. Washington to Henry Ford. It’s an impressive “visual metaphor for the relentless thrust of history.”

Despite this production’s gargantuan proportions, it’s actually more intimate than the “indulgent” original, which debuted on Broadway in 1998, said Michael Toscano in Theatermania.com. Orchestrator William David Brohn gives brilliant new lift to the music—a first-rate collection of marches, ragtime, and gospel. Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge achieves maximum emotional force by tightly focusing on librettist Terrence McNally’s characters “and on the storytelling found in Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ score.” She skillfully intertwines the show’s many narratives, which eventually culminate in Coalhouse’s “all-consuming quest for justice” after bigots destroy his cherished Model T.

This is “the best-sung show the Kennedy Center has mounted in years,” said Peter Marks in The Washington Post. Dodge has assembled a cast “without brand names” but with a surplus of talent. As Coalhouse, Quentin Earl Darrington displays “the necessary vocal artillery” on the crowd-pleasing “The Wheels of a Dream.” Jennlee Shallow is a “plaintive powerhouse” as Sarah, her sharp vocals shining on songs like “Your Daddy’s Son.” Ensemble numbers such as “New Music” and the gospel-inflected “Till We Reach That Day” “fill the auditorium with harmonies nothing short of heavenly.” These songs, about a country struggling to overcome its flaws, will likely strike a chord with audience members “dreaming about better days to come.”

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