Thursday, April 23, 2009

Listen to that Ragtime

The crystal chandeliers were just as stunning as I remember them from my very first visit to the Kennedy Center more than twenty years ago. The royal red carpet muffled every footstep that could possibly have echoed through the enormous, cavernous lobby. There are actually at least four--maybe five--theatres in the Kennedy Center, and I have made it a small goal to see something in all of them.

When I visited the Kennedy decades ago with my family, during what was arguably one of the coldest, windiest, and snowiest winters on record, I remember asking my parents, "Are we going to see anything here?" The theatre bug had bitten hard, even then. I was disappointed when I was roundly dismissed, citing money, time, attention span, and the presence of other members of my family as a reason for the dismissal.

Last night, my desire to be a part of a theatrical experience at the Kennedy was fulfilled. Better yet, I was privvy to a scaled-back (but still vocally spectacular) production of Ragtime, the Ahrens-Flaherty musical originally produced by Livent that eventually bankrupted a company. I was fortunate to have been able to see the show with the original Broadway cast in New York, fairly soon after the show opened. I had read the book in high school and been intrigued by the Robert Redford film, but basically, after I discovered a few other novels and a play by Doctrow that didn't live up to my expectations, I forgot about the entire story.

Years later, a friend of mine more connected to the NY theatre scene pulled me into his car and played me a couple of snippets of songs from the score. "Isn't that amazing?" he asked me. I was more than interested. I loved the lush, building melodies, the trained voices that knew how to sing and project, not just belt out a couple of "money notes;" and the idea that a real story was once again going to feature prominently in a Broadway musical (Chicago, anyone?) My friend quickly dubbed me a copy of the album, which I later learned featured the concept cast and show from when it was workshopped in Quebec. Still, I was hooked.

The chance to see the musical in its big, bold, lavish glory at the Ford theatre in New York was a thrill. The original cast--Marin Mazzie, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald--all became theatre-household names. The show was huge and powerful. The sets were gorgeous. The costumes were spot-on. The choreography was interesting and expressive. The wall of sound that hit me when the entire cast of 50 was onstage literally blew me away. It was one of the best musical experiences I have ever had. And those who know me know that I am first and foremost a critic. Most people won't go see anything with me for all of my nit-picking and "suggesting."

Then the tour came through Cincinnati. I convinced DH to see it with me again (he had also been present in NY--the tickets were his birthday present to me). And it was a complete disappointment. Sure there were good voices. The costumes still looked good. And Jim Corti, who played Harry Houdini in the original cast, was taking on the role of Tateh. But overall, it failed to move me in the way the original had. It was a tour. My expectations were low, and it didn't do much to meet them. I missed the glitz and glamour and the wall of sound.

Despite the setting, I was a little apprehensive entering the theatre last night. Would it be a NY or a Cincy show? Would I love it? I knew that it had been scaled back--30+ cast members instead of 50 (which makes sense), smaller sets, less-expensive production values. We are in a recession, after all.

Last night's show did not disappoint. The vocals were "slam-me-against-the-wall" powerful. The cast stayed in the moment and their pain, joy, and disbelief were palpable. The story was the same story, without the trappings of a full-scale Model-T onstage. I quickly accepted the conventions of the basically "unit" set and settled in to let the characters tell me their story. Christiane Noll did a fantastic job making the role of Mother her own. Quentin Earl Darrington had an intensity and vulnerability that I don't recall Brian Stokes Mitchell having. Jennlee Shallow (Sarah) had pipes that went on forever, and put the requisite "F" in "Your Daddy's Son" in exactly the right spot--I wish more of today's theatrical singers could do it as well, as balanced as she did. Manoel Felciano (Tateh) brought a humor and a humanity to Tateh that other actors I've seen simply didn't have. Christopher Cox's deadpan was funny, and he didn't appropriate what other young actors have done, whether on cast recordings or elsewhere.

I loved the way cast members "hung out" on upper levels of the multilevel set to watch, at once becoming part of the audience and acting as a Greek Chorus. I loved that the levels represented class structures at times, and parts of a house at others. It was very fluid.

There were a few missteps. Bobby Steggert (Mother's Younger Brother) had the pathos that the role requires in his voice, but not his face. His suit was much, much too big for him, and the age difference between him and Noll made it a little hard to swallow that he was her brother and not her son. Of course, I might be slightly biased. Steven Sutcliffe, who originated the role on Broadway and is featured on the cast album, owned the role, and the songs were probably written to suit his vocal range. I've never heard anyone do any of Mother's Younger Brother's songs better. Ever.

Tommy Hollis as Booker T. Washington had the fire in his soul, but it came in such a tiny package, it felt farcical. Some gray in his hair might have helped me suspend my disbelief that he was any older than 20.

The choreography was, as in the original, interesting and expressive. The music, the pit orchestra, the vocal--all phenomenal. The wall of sound was there (which made me wonder if the cast was singing with a tape double--which happens sometimes when shows have to cut back on personnel). The scrim behind the set was well-employed, as an artist's canvas on which to paint the emotion behind the words emanating from the stage. In a few spots, body mics didn't come up until characters started speaking or singing, which made the extent to which they were miced up very noticeable. But hopefully those kinks will be ironed out during the run.

In short, Ragtime is still powerful--as a story and as a musical. As performed by the cast at the Kennedy, directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, it is still a force to be reckoned with. Reduced? In number and size only. The sound and spirit of show are as big as they've ever been.