Saturday, January 9, 2010

The era of ragtime had run out...

"I have good news and bad news. The good news: I just saw a really good semi-professional regional-theatre production of Ragtime. The bad news: it was on Broadway."

That's the opening line I was planning to use when I reviewed the new revival of Ragtime, which I saw way back in November. I was really excited about posting a review here, I swear. But I came down with a cold that sapped me of all my physical and mental strength (...twice!), and then Christmas, etc., and now it's pretty much too late: the show is closing tomorrow. Ah well. For posterity -- and for those of you who didn't see it -- that's the short take: from your local theatre guild, at local prices, it would have been worth seeing; on a Broadway stage it was an expensive disappointment.

And expensive it was. Let's just get that out of the way. On the night I saw it, the seats we had (front row center mezz) were priced at $137 each. That's obscene. I love the theatre more than most, but come on. I would say "There's a recession on!" but really, let's not blame the economy. Even in flush times, nobody should be paying that much for a ticket, unless they get a free iPod with their Playbill. And recession or no, I wasn't going to pay full price, of course, so I stood in line at the TKTS booth and got them for half off -- $70 each. Which is still too much. The mezzanine was half empty that night, and I can't say I was surprised. Every time a show closes soon after it opens, arts journalists and producers and critics line up to play coroner. "It was too soon," "The reviews were just too mixed," "No big-name stars," etc. If you find yourself listening to or reading a post-mortem of this kind, and your expert doesn't mention the exorbitant cost of seeing a Broadway show today within the first sixty seconds/two paragraphs, walk away, because they're ignoring the obvious. A business model that prices tickets at well upwards of $100 is a broken business model, and the fact that it sometimes works out in producers' favor doesn't change that. The end. (On the topic of Ragtime, however, I am just getting started. And I can finally put jump breaks in my posts! Thank God, because this is a long one. Click through for more.)

I really wanted this Ragtime revival to work, because I recall the original production with great fondness. I was in high school at the time, and deeply committed to musical-theatre geekery. I believe Ragtime was the first new show that I was excited about in real time, as opposed to I-wish-I-could-have-seen-that nostalgia. This was partly because they released that "Songs from Ragtime" workshop recording from the 1996 Toronto production, which I was then able to (obsessively) compare with the 1998 Broadway cast recording. It was a self-guided tutorial in how rewrites happen: how okay songs get replaced with better songs; how things get cut and shuffled and reconceptualized; and also how obvious flaws can be ignored, and how too much workshopping can often make matters worse instead of better. ("Should we make 'Gliding' longer?" NO!) I didn't have many delusions about the show's strengths and weaknesses -- I was already a Sondheim snob by 1998, I assure you. But I thought, and still think, it did have strengths, and I was swept up in the story and the process and -- above all -- the cast. That fabulous cast. I read the novel, I studied the soundtracks, I wasted money on the "vocal selections" sheet music, and when I finally managed to get to New York to see the show for myself (paying full price for the tickets, which was probably about what I paid to see this revival at half-price) I was thrilled by the whole adventure. Just getting inside the brand-new Ford Center for the Performing Arts was a thrill. (Those restrooms! So capacious!) Plus -- on a separate trip to the city, before I finally got to see Ragtime -- I happened to run into Brian Stokes Mitchell on the sidewalk outside the theatre, and he was kind enough to pose for a picture with me. It remained one of my most treasured possessions for years thereafter. (No, you can't see it.)

Anyway, my affection for, critical opinions about, and recollection of Ragtime run rather deep, and with all that in mind, this version was a pale shadow of the original. The original production was a bit bloated, of course, but it was designed to be that way. Remember, it was 1998! Garth Drabinsky hadn't yet been exposed as a fraud! And next to the overstuffed, overhyped, self-serious West End garbage that dominated the 1980s on Broadway, Ragtime looked meritorious indeed; it was something for Americans to be proud of. Now, alas, the era of really expensive serious-minded musicals has run out, as if history were no more than a tune on a synthesizer set to "strings." But we did not know that then.

(About the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, which opened to such fanfare in December 1997: it's called the Hilton Theatre now. I haven't been back since Ragtime, because -- well, you can figure it out. Once again, it's about the money. If a show's not big and crowd-pleasing, it can't play the Hilton. This scaled-down Ragtime played the Neil Simon Theatre, and even that was too big, as it turned out.)

There were two things about that original Livent production that I thought were underpraised: Graciela Daniele's musical staging and Steven Sutcliffe's performance as Younger Brother. One thing that was overpraised was Terrence McNally's book. Flash forward eleven years: Marcia Milgrom Dodge is getting all kinds of buzz for her inventive staging, and I keep hearing about Bobby Steggert's standout performance as Younger Brother. And critics are still being far too kind to McNally (what else is new). So let's take those one at a time.

To me, the staging was, at its best, efficiently problem-solving, and it was too seldom at its best. No one who had seen the original production could fail to perceive this one as, essentially, an answer to the question "How do you do Ragtime on a budget?" The problem is, in some ways, you really can't. The cast, for example: this production had a smaller ensemble, which led to some creative recycling, which meant using lots of black actors to augment the crowds of "European immigrants" and "factory workers" and so on. So-called color-blind casting in ensembles is standard these days, even in shows like The Music Man or Wonderful Town where it's sort of anachronistic, because people get that it's not supposed to matter. But this show is about race. The central theme is different racial and socioeconomic groups colliding, and the tensions that produces. The opening number sets that up very plainly. So it's a big distraction to mix the groups in subsequent numbers. Sorry, but it's true. (And, at least for now, there are official clips online that helpfully illustrate my points.)

And then there was that multilevel set (which was surprisingly reminiscent of the Eugene Lee industrial architecture of the first production). The look of it was appealing, but it really wasn't all that functional. In fact, it often meant that the center of the stage was basically empty, while all the performers stood around the periphery. Now that the show has nearly closed, I can just tell you this without saying "spoiler alert": when Sarah was beaten to death, Coalhouse had to run down a long flight of stairs to "discover" her body. The absence of dramatic tension was risible. When they did use the central playing area, there were times when the use (or lack) of moving set pieces and props went from "minimalist" to simply "cheap." Not even a potted plant or something to represent "garden," and to keep Mother busy during the long time she's kneeling next to the trapdoor waiting for her cue to discover the "baby"?

During some songs, removing the expensive trappings of the original left weird holes. During "Gettin' Ready Rag," for example, Coalhouse is supposed to (ahem) get ready to see Sarah. The number was designed to go with the staging -- barber's chair and all. (Funny that what this reminds me of is John Doyle's Sweeney Todd, which also tried to make do without a barber's chair, reducing the second-act "Johanna" to utter nonsense. What is it about barber's chairs?!) Without that you just get an awkward dance break to fill up.

And this production was not distinguished by its choreography -- think "high school drama teacher stages the opening number of Fiddler on the Roof" and you've got a pretty good mental picture of what the dancing looked like.

On a more general note, too often, the musical numbers just did not seem to have the right emotional content. The opening number, so simple and stately and tense in Daniele's staging, had much less drama here. Sarah seemed to be smiling through "Your Daddy's Hands." There wasn't enough desperation in "Success," and "Henry Ford" was too cheerful, too devoid of menace.

As for the performances: I can see why Bobby Steggert was so widely praised. But for me (and I should note that I saw the show after he'd been reviewed, in case that made a difference), his take on Younger Brother was a little too intense, or at least got intense a little too early. He was playing the "twitchy outcast" part of the character so hard it was distracting; right from his first entrance it seemed like he'd wandered in from a production of Assassins. The character had no room to build. The best thing about this production, in my opinion, was Christiane Noll. I'd never seen her in anything before (yes, alas, I missed Jekyll and Hyde), and I was very impressed with her acting -- I couldn't take my eyes off her during "Our Children." She managed to sell the improbable Tateh-Mother romance so effectively it actually undercut the scene that followed (uh, guys? Father isn't dead yet). Her singing voice seemed a little too contemporary, however, at least compared to Marin Mazzie's. Noll did the songs justice, but Mazzie made them sound much better (and more 1906-appropriate) than they actually are.

Nobody else struck me as more than adequate. Ron Boehmer put a lot of work into finding some sort of character in Father, but he mainly succeeded in highlighting how underwritten that character is. As Coalhouse, Quentin Earl Darrington was something less than adequate -- and not just compared to Brian Stokes Mitchell (no one measures up to Stokes). He was an affable blank when he needed to be a commanding presence. The character needs charisma and mystery, and Darrington seemed to be consciously avoiding either. (He's upstaged in this clip by Steggart, and it's Coalhouse's big number!)

As for the book: Yes, compressing the novel's many twists and turns into something short and comprehensible was a difficult task, but I'm not convinced McNally did it especially well, as the critics so often claim he did. He is presumably to blame for the whole "The Little Boy is a freakish clairvoyant" thread that runs through the show (toned down some here -- no second-act-opening Houdini nightmare -- but alas, still intrusive and completely incomprehensible), taking a delicate detail of Doctorow's and pushing it way past the point of usefulness. This production also downplayed the thematic functions of Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Houdini, but that just made their occasional appearances seem more random and pointless. And I have to begrudge McNally any praise when there are still so many inexcusably terrible lines of dialogue. Is there a more ludicrous line than "My people were also brought here on ships"? Answer: yes, and it's this: "Well, that's the most words you've spoken since you've been here!" I also blame McNally, as well as lyricist Lynn Ahrens, for the way the show plays fast and loose with the novel's "no proper names" gimmick. "That's impossible everyone has a name / even the little negro baby who lives in our attic" just makes me so mad.

The show, as written, has plenty of flaws, and for me this production tended to amplify them without offering any compensating gains. The finale, thanks to Coalhouse's antihero flameout, was still conflicted and confusing, and in this production it was oddly devoid of passion. For one thing, it was hard to figure out what was going on if you didn't already know. They'd trimmed some dialogue and music from the beginning of Act Two, which got us to the Morgan Library faster but with some confusion about why we were there. And why no dynamite plunger in the library scene? Then, with the halfhearted staging on top of Darrington's low-energy performance, "Make Them Hear You" sounded more than ever like a lame attempt at articulating an eleventh-hour moral. Tateh's songs were still mostly irritating, which means Tateh was still completely unlikeable, although I liked Robert Petkoff more than I remember liking Peter Friedman. The Little Girl was pretty awful (too bad Lea Michele is all grown up!) -- I was distracted by her unconvincing "look how sad I am" face.

And maybe someday someone will find a way to make The Little Boy cute, or just not-annoying, but to my knowledge it hasn't happened yet.

Did I like anything about this production? Yes: first of all, I really like the promotional art. The poster image is a good one. Houdini's entrance (suspended from a chain, in a straitjacket) was cute. "Crime of the Century" was imaginatively staged, and "Till We Reach That Day" was quite powerful (until the very end, when it suddenly and unaccountably felt "happy"). "What a Game" worked as well as it possibly could -- which is only half good, because it's (very dopey) comic relief that really shouldn't be the strongest moment in the first half of Act Two. And, as I said, Christiane Noll is great, so I'm looking forward to seeing her again. But overall: this shouldn't have been on Broadway, and if you missed it, you didn't miss much.

P.S. I was going to title this post "We can never go back to before," but then I discovered I used that the last time I blogged about a rumored Ragtime revival. Heh. Other thoughts about Ragtime here.

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