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by Michael Portantiere

One More Week of Musical Theater Heaven

  • Ragtime.jpg

    One More Week of Musical Theater Heaven

    It was quite an emotional scene at Ragtime this past Sunday afternoon. The January 3 performance was to have marked the show's sadly premature closing -- until a one-week extension to the 10th was announced -- so the fans were out in force. Heartfelt cheers and applause were the rule throughout the show. At intermission, I saw André De Shields in the audience, with tears in his eyes. And I ran into a fellow journalist who said, "This is the first time in my life that I've paid for a theater ticket. I just had to be here."

    One could go on and on attempting to analyze exactly why this magnificent revival was unable to find an audience, with reasons ranging from a lack of star names to the argument that this production came too soon after the original. Of course, the generally high price of Broadway tickets enters into the equation, especially in the current economy.

    Whatever, I'm very sorry to see Ragtime go. I myself teared up at several points during the performance, and I can't honestly say how much of that was due to the emotional impact of the show itself and how much to my knowledge that it will be gone after this coming weekend. But I'm grateful that I got to see this production three times: once during its initial engagement at the Kennedy Center in D.C., and twice at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre.

    Based on the epic novel by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime has a gorgeous, sweeping score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), and an exemplary book by Terrence McNally -- in my opinion, far and away that writer's best work of the past quarter century. Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the current production is a must-see for its grand, three-level unit set (love that cyclorama!), it's sumptuously huge orchestra (more than three times the size of the instrumental complement you'll hear if you attend the present Broadway revival of A Little Night Music), and a superb cast headed by Ron Bohmer, Quentin Earl Darrington, Christiane Noll, Robert Petkoff, Bobby Steggert, and Stephanie Umoh.

    I've previously extolled several of these performers, but I don't want to let Ragtime go without a special nod to Darrington and Umoh (pictured above), both of whom are doing brilliant work in roles previously thought to be owned by Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald. Darrington's Coalhouse Walker is a triumph, and I'm going to say without a moment of hesitation that Umoh's Sunday afternoon performance of the vocally and emotionally exhausting Act I aria "Your Daddy's Son" represented three of the most thrilling minutes I've ever experienced in a theater.

    Yes, the swift closing of this show is very sad, but something I noticed after Sunday's performance gave me hope for the future. While I was waiting at the stage door with friends, we noticed that the crowd of well-wishers and autograph seekers included lots of young people. It does my heart good to see theatergoers of that generation are able to appreciate Ragtime with its beautiful, traditional-style score. After all, there should be room on Broadway for every conceivable type of musical, as long as they're done well.

    If you haven't yet caught Ragtime, please do yourself a favor and get yourself to the Neil Simon before the closing this Sunday. It doesn't get much better than this.

    Published on Monday, January 4, 2010

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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