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  • Ragtime at the Kennedy CenterThere's no comparison between a big Ragtime and a small Ragtime. And seldom since the original production(s) of the 1998 Lynn Ahrens–Stephen Flaherty–Terrence McNally musical has this country-consuming adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's same-titled 1975 novel received grander attention than it currently is at the Eisenhower Theatre at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. This does not mean that that production, which has been directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge and completes its run this weekend, is a Ragtime for the ages—it's clearly not. But it comes closer than most in capturing the show's irrepressible, epic character.

    There are nearly 40 people in the cast. The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, under the baton of musical director James Moore, counts 28 musicians, playing William David Brohn's sumptuous original orchestrations. And the physical production (sets by Derek McLane, costumes split between Santo Loquasto's extravagant originals and Jimm Halliday's well-matched new ones, and Donald Holder's lights) fills out the experience of watching a show that often seems like patriotic liberalism on autopilot. But that is, and has always been, Ragtime: Its egalitarian and Democratic view of the world is so blaringly expressed that without towering adornment by the fruits of capitalism and excess, the show says nothing very, very emphatically. In Milgrom Dodge's production, that's never a problem. What is, however, is that the director's commitment to sweep has not stretched to every corner of this show, which needs all it can get just to remain upright.

    The story of a New Rochelle WASP, Mother (Christiane Noll), who becomes embroiled in battle of racial politics while her husband, Father (Ron Bohmer), is venturing to the North Pole, is weighted in too many places to possess full freedom of movement. One moment, you're following the heartbreaking adventures of the brilliant Harlem pianist, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Quentin Earl Darrington), who's tortured within the boundaries of the law for his skin color and his relationship with the young cleaning girl Sarah (Jennlee Shallow), and who responds with physical violence. The next, you're with the Latvian immigrant Tateh (Manoel Felciano), who comes to America with his daughter (Sarah Rosenthal) in search of opportunity and finds poverty, but plies his talent as a silhouette portrait artist to Hollywood success. Then you might glimpse Mother's revolutionary-minded Younger Brother (Bobby Steggert); celebrities like the anarchist Emma Goldman (Donna Migliaccio) or the celebrated escape artist Harry Houdini (Jonathan Hammond) that inspire the immigrants; the captains of society (Booker T. Washington, played by Eric Jordan Young) and industry (David Garry's J.P. Morgan or Aaron Galligan-Stierle's Henry Ford) who inspire with words or ideas; or even just the tabloid-topper Evelyn Nesbit (Leigh Ann Larkin), who inspires with her body and her proximity to scandal.

    Any fully successful Ragtime must balance the intimate humanity of the Mother, Coalhouse, and Tateh plots with the large-scale consequences exploding around them, and at that Milgrom Dodge largely fails. There's not any one particular big problem, merely a bunch of small ones. Her diminutive and uncentered choreography usually looks more like a combination of basic steps than an expression of the ideas in the lyrics. (Why she's sacrificed much of Evelyn Nesbit's only solo, "Crime of the Century," to vaudeville representations of the men who fought over her instead of to the starlet herself is never clear.) McLane's shallow pipe-and-platform scaffholding set makes complete if inefficient use of vertical space and creates any number of flat, static pictures and staging delays as performers dash between its tiers. Coalhouse's Model T, a crucial symbolic fixture in the plot, looks ridiculous and out of place made of the same kind of piping, painted red, and pushed around by Darrington and Rosenthal as if it were a shopping cart. Certain performers overestimate their deliveries, giving performances that aren't so much big as they are hammy or even shameless. (Bohmer, who seems to be playing Father directly for laughs much of the time—even when there should be none—is a chief perpetrator.) Other actors, particularly Noll and Darrington, obviously have and display the goods, but are lacking the precise oomph necessary for true dramatic fireworks.

    Similar criticisms can be leveled at the writing, of course, which is usually preachy and about as subtle as a locomotive rerailed through a china shop. Flaherty's music, which blends Harlem syncopation, klezmer, and the "la la la" of our country's leisure class, doesn't just sound like America—it is America, in its individual and collective forms. So even when McNally's book meanders around obvious points or Ahrens's lyrics extrapolate endlessly on ideals that need not be overconvincing or wear their social-consciousness on their sleeves (as they seem to every other minute), what you hear never feels less than genuine, even when—or especially when—it's oversized. But in a production like this one that's prepared for it, the scope strangely feels just right.

    But for the full effect, everything needs to be in sync, and it's not here is. The best example is probably Steggert, who plays Younger Brother not as a man with a flame he's not sure how to fan but an on-the-outs nicotine addict just looking for a light. Most of his line readings aren't deadly, but just dead, as if Younger Brother has no soul to fill. The idea is obivously that, when he's exposed to Emma Goldman, he's jolted into action. But because Steggert started from nowhere, the character can't move quickly enough to get where he needs to be by evening's end. This Ragtime, which has the enormity the work needs but wants all the additional glory without the work, is very much the same.

    The Civil War at Ford's TheatreIf Ragtime tries to take on too much, The Civil War attempts far too little. That means, of course, that the Frank Wildhorn–Gregory Boyd–Jack Murphy musical has an easier time of reaching its destination unscathed. But as Jeff Calhoun's production at Ford's Theatre, which runs through May 24, proves, wanting to say little is no guarantee you'll be able to say anything at all.

    This production is not the same version of the show that flopped on Broadway in 1999. It's been reduced from two full acts to one running 90 minutes; some songs have been reordered, replaced, and joined by new ones; and the whole thing has become even more openly a generalized song cycle. I didn't see the Broadway production, but given the vacant and vapid nature of almost every number here, these rethinkings can only be improvements. Wildhorn, who's famous (or perhaps infamous) for populist-schlock shows like Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Dracula is not noted for deep character writing, so the glancing visions he gives of life in the North and South during the United States's bloodiest conflict are to be expected, as are the lovely but forgettable melodies and frequently inert lyrics that make political mincemeat of one of America's most charged eras.

    The cast ranges in talent from just above average to full-on terrific. The latter category is filled out by a take-no-prisoners Kingsley Leggs in his gospel tribute "River Jordan"; the scintillating Michael "Tuba" McKinsey in a tribute to the Confederate "Old Gray Coat," in which its wearers invested so much significance, that threats to crumble the walls of the venerable auditorium with its enthusiasm; and Eleasha Gamble delivers a rousing pop spiritual called "Someday" that celebrates the achievements of black Americans that have rarely received their fair due.

    If the staging Calhoun has devised is not really inventive (the words "glorified rock concert" spring to mind), the director does make the most of what he has to work with. He's teamed with video designer Aaron Rhyne to provide a constant backdrop of period-appropriate projections that fill the proceedings with a fluid visual flair. Calhoun and costume designer Wade Laboissonniere have developed a clever conceit that requires most of the show to be performed in modern dress, with appropriate 1860s attire making a perfectly timed appearance just seconds before the final curtain. And the interludes with Michael Goodwin reciting Abraham Lincoln's most stirring speeches make full use of the playing space (as well as the always-visible box where Lincoln was shot almost 150 years ago). These attempts to dress up The Civil War ensure that is never disrespectful or outright offensive. But they can't disguise the show's extremely limited ambitions or its success at achieving them at the cost of the complex, thoughtful, and passionate treatment this catalytic chapter in American history deserves.

    Ragtime photos by Joan Marcus. Clockwise from top: The cast; Manoel Felciano and Sarah Rosenthal; and Christiane Noll.

    The Civil War photos by T. Charles Erickson. Top to bottom: Michael Lanning, Sean Jenness, and the cast; and the cast.

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