In the first of two Wall Street Journal drama columns filed this week from New England, I review a Maine revival of Ragtime. Here’s an excerpt.
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How are American theater companies, most of whose leaders incline unabashedly to the left, responding to the Trump presidency? Two different New England companies, Maine’s Ogunquit Playhouse and Massachusetts’ Barrington Stage, both made a point this summer of producing “Ragtime,” the musical version of E.L. Doctorow’s bourgeois-baiting 1975 novel about life in America at the turn of the 20th century. Not only does “Ragtime” center on a black piano player who is radicalized by white racism, but it also portrays a group of Eastern European immigrants, one of whom, Emma Goldman, was in real life an anarchist and hard-left labor activist….
Whatever their ulterior motives for programming such a show in the first year of President Trump’s administration, it’s no less safe to assume that both companies also had an eye on the box office. A smash hit when it came to Broadway in 1998, “Ragtime” remains deservedly popular to this day. To be sure, Terrence McNally’s heavy-handed book is a too-much-tell-not-enough-show pageant-style adaptation of the novel, but the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty score is a vital, propulsive piece of near-operatic music drama that sweeps aside all reservations, be they critical or political. As for the Ogunquit Playhouse revival, it’s a first-rate piece of work, to my mind even more effective than the solid but commercially unsuccessful revival of “Ragtime” that came to Broadway in 2009. I’ve seen some fine musicals in Ogunquit since I started going there a decade ago, but this one, directed with crisply disciplined authority by Seth Sklar-Heyn, is the best yet….
Mr. Sklar-Heyn and his collaborators clearly understand that the dramatic force of “Ragtime” arises from its score, a knowing pastiche of ragtime-era American popular song styles: Every number is beautifully sung and vibrantly staged. The result is a musical that feels much shorter than its three-hour running time, one in which the forward momentum never flags for a second….
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Read the whole thing here.
Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie, and the cast of the original 1998 production of Ragtime perform the show’s title song on that year’s Tony Awards telecast: