REVIEW: At the Arden, Ragtime, Seen From a New Perspective

Nkrumah Gatling in RAGTIME. (Photo by Wide Eyed Studio)

I first heard the musical Ragtime through a highlights recording, released prior to the Broadway production—and it was love at first sound. Stephen Flaherty’s music and Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics had me at “hello.”

By then, I had already been a fan of E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling novel, set in America at the dawn of a new century—especially the author’s ability to mix history and fiction, tragedy and sweetness, social realism and fantasy in an utterly intoxicating way. The size and scope of that book, though, made me wary of an adaptation. Sure enough, a few years earlier, Milos Foreman’s movie version had been a mixed bag at best. Could a musical capture Ragtime’s largeness?

This early recording suggested it could… and finally seeing the show confirmed it. The full score was twice as long as the preview CD suggested, and even better—thrilling in its ability to crystallize the time period, while also feeling quite modern. Terrence McNally’s book is more routine, but it telescoped the story effectively and got the job done. 

I was hooked—a confirmed Ragtime-the-musical fan. And I’ve mostly remained so, though over the years some doubts about the show have crept in—ironically, mostly about the score, the very element that is also the show’s great strength. 

It’s almost an embarrassment of riches, with one fabulous melody after another. But coupled with this is a tendency for songs to serve as heavy-duty metaphors, each one standing in for something epochal. That is certainly part of the novel, but there are instances when Ragtime now feels to me like a parade of anthemic Big Moments.

Don’t get me wrong—it’s a pretty classy “problem” to have. But what is sometimes missing here, and is such a beguiling part of the novel, is the small everyday moments that make up a family experience, so effectively juxtaposed against the occasionally horrific tapestry of early 20th century America. The emphasis on grandeur and sociopolitical weight makes Ragtime a bit like the theatrical equivalent of a 10,000-calorie dinner.

So some slimming down seemed possible, even desirable. Pretty much everything about the Arden’s more chamber-sized adaptation sounded very promising to me. Intimate space, almost in-the-round configuration, and streamlined set design (by James Kronzer)—I was on-board for all of it. The ensemble here of 19 performers is still formidable, but the first Broadway production company had been more than double that, and again, I could see advantages gained from a tighter focus. I adore William D. Brohn’s orchestrations for the original, but a smaller ensemble might also lighten up some of the portentousness.

In practice, though, while there are a number of good elements to the production, I regret to say it ultimately didn’t deliver what I’d hoped. Rather than making the musical more accessible, it felt more than ever like a manifesto.

Before getting into the reasons why, I’ll focus on some of the positive elements. In particular, the cast—strong across the board, with standout performances by Nkrumah Gatling (Coalhouse Walker), Cooper Grodin (Tateh), and Robi Hager (Younger Brother). Jessica Johnson (Sarah’s Friend) is, as always, an emotional powerhouse, though the role still feels to me like an abstract icon rather than a person. 

There are also some very elegant pictorial choices, not least in the two pianos that are cleverly used to represent different locations and objects.

But the theatre configuration at the Arden proves confounding, and director Terrence J. Nolen’s staging is often awkward. The experience will vary from different seats, but from my perspective, it looks like almost every audience member will find parts of the show difficult to see and hear. The abstracted, minimalist visuals—welcome in themselves—make it even harder to perceive a sense of home-life, and are even less effective at conveying the very specific locations in which much of Ragtime is set.

A bigger problem for me is that the narration, which is built into the piece, here becomes hugely prominent. Provided by numerous characters who rotate these responsibilities throughout the show, it overtakes the sense that we’re watching the characters’ lives as they happen.  It’s as if almost every scene has a distancing “frame” around it. This is especially notable in Evelyn Nesbitt’s “Crime of the Century,” a diegetic performance piece. Already dripping with irony, here it is delivered by the excellent Rachel Camp with yet another layer of almost hipster-ish detachment, which frankly is not what this show needs. 

There’s still much to take away from Arden’s Ragtime, and especially if you have not seen the show—to my mind, one of the greatest in the last 30-plus years—you absolutely should. But the immediacy and connection I’d hoped to feel from this production is maddeningly elusive. It’s as if Ragtime has gone from the page to the stage… and back again to the page. 

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Ragtime plays through October 27th. For more information, visit the Arden Theatre website.

Categories: Criticism, Television, Theater

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