RAGTIME Broadway Revival Reviews

Here is a summary of the reviews for the Ragtime revival on Broadway….

Raves

David Rooney at Variety: The 1997 musical not only feels trenchant and timely, but its multistrand story is delivered with fresh clarity and emotional immediacy in director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s elegant revival…. This is big-brain, bold-strokes musical-theater storytelling at its most vibrant…. Some may quibble that Flaherty’s score overplays its hand with its succession of emphatic anthems, but shuffled among those numbers are more delicate songs of introspection and yearning that bring the show gently back to earth from its many soaring peaks. Under Dodge’s assured direction, the impeccable cast plays that balance like perfectly tuned instruments.

David Sheward at Backstage: In a season full of star vehicles, the revival of Ragtime rides onto Broadway with nary a box-office name and steamrollers its way to the top of the heap…. Though that first production remains fresh in my mind, this edition finds new spark and vibrancy. The script by Terrence McNally and the lush and moving score by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens eschew the cool, detached tone of E.L. Doctorow’s original novel for a somewhat sentimental flavor. Dodge has fully and honestly embraced that sentiment. As a result, this Ragtime makes a deep emotional connection with the audience.

Melissa Rose Bernardo at Entertainment Weekly: A leaner, less lavish, yet somehow even richer incarnation of the turn-of-the-20th-century-era musical has been neatly fitted into Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre…. And therein lies the biggest difference between the old and new Ragtime: edge. The opulent original production radiated an almost blinding streak of sun-soaked late-’90s optimism. This darker revival is by no means a bummer; it’s simply more grounded in reality. With its wonderful blend of nostalgia, anger, patriotism, and hard-won idealism, perhaps Ragtime is simply a better suited to 2009.

Frank Scheck at The Hollywood Reporter: The revival… serves as a valuable reminder that this show, based on the classic E.L. Doctorow novel and featuring a gorgeous score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), is one of the best musicals of recent decades. It has been reborn in a magnificently stirring production that deserves to run for years…. Director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s presentational-style staging, performed on a multilevel scaffold set, is far less lavish than the original version. But it works beautifully, balancing the epic with the intimate…. It’s almost unfair to compare the current, largely unknown company to their predecessors because the original Broadway production featured a dream cast, but the ensemble does justice to the material.

Peter Filichia at TheatreMania: Right away, we see that Dodge has added little touches that prove she’s intently thought about every Terrence McNally line and Lynn Ahrens lyric…. Dodge wisely directs much of the action right at the lip of the stage so we can better see and hear everything. At least when the 1998 Tonys were dispensed, Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty were justifiably rewarded. Interesting that Generation X’er Flaherty… composed traditional sounding theater music. When dealing with a period piece, he felt no need to write anachronistic rock for it. Other theater writers believe that we’re now in an era where a segment of the population wants to hear rock, so rock must dictate the sound of their show. Not Flaherty. He had to write for three different classes of people with three distinct sounds in a long-ago era, and he got it all right – beautifully right, stirringly right, from each waltz to (of course) ragtime song. Ahrens’ work is just as impressive.

Richard Ouzounian at The Toronto Star: The musical theatre had a great deal of its lustre restored on Sunday night when the triumphant revival of Ragtime opened on Broadway. For sheer melodic invention, lyrical intelligence and dramatic force, it’s unlikely that any show written in the 11 years since it first debuted in New York can match it…. Director/choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge has managed to stage the work in a way that gives it every bit of the splendour it originally possessed, but with a new fluidity and spaciousness that lets it acquire even more power. Derek McLane’s 10-metre-high set is lofty without being overbearing, Donald Holder’s lighting can fill the stage with happiness or horror on cue, and the magnificent original costumes of Santo Loquasto return in all their multicoloured splendour. There’s a superb cast as well, but the major ingredient that this production has on its side this time is timing – a factor that crippled it the first time around.

Robert Feldman at Bergen Record: Watching the vivid, stirring, lovingly staged revival of Ragtime, I had the thought, “This time they got it right.” … The revival… uncovers the compelling musical that had been hidden beneath the original’s massive sets and stilted presentation. Thanks to director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, working with inspired designers and a superb cast, Ragtime can take its place as a major American musical… With Dodge adding humor — it’s amazing how light moments can humanize characters — Terrence McNally’s clear and cogent adaptation of Doctorow becomes a compelling story…. Ragtime lives in its songs, and, given a vibrant setting, the bounteous score by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens soars, filling the evening with seductive ragtime themes, soaring ballads… and catchy novelty numbers…

Michael Sommers at Newsroom New Jersey: Among the few truly great musicals created in living memory, Ragtime does more than just tell a story through songs. Brilliantly weaving history and fiction into a musical tapestry of epic scale, it conjures up a panoramic view of early 1900s America as immigrants, black people and the white elite seethe in a cultural melting pot…. Marshalling a 40-member company, director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge swiftly and fluently stages the musical’s interlocking stories upon a looming skeletal setting by Derek McLane that suggests both old Pennsylvania Station and Ellis Island while providing numerous levels for the action happening in New Rochelle, Harlem, Atlantic City and Manhattan…. Anyone who’s never before seen Ragtime is likely to be blown away by the experience, while everybody else will thrill once more to the work’s dramatic sweep and musical majesty.

Roma Torre at NY1: Ragtime is a sweeping, powerful musical about a restless period in our history. But it is also an intimate story about love, loss and growing up. It is this aspect, not the broad epic quality, that director Marcia Milgrom Dodge went after and, with this nearly flawless production, she has struck a most resonant chord…. Terrence McNally’s astute book expertly blends the various tales into Stephen Flaherty’s gorgeously melodic score with Lynn Ahren’s intuitive lyrics. An impressive work before, now it’s even better. Director Dodge whittled away the excesses of the original production and gives us a more sharply focused experience…. The performances mostly match and even exceed those from the original production with glorious vocals enhanced by a wonderfully filled out orchestra…. To say that this company got it right is an understatement. This Ragtime is one for the ages.

Matt Windham at On Off Broadway: This revival emphasizes character detail and clarity over spectacle. Its three-story unit set of iron scaffolding and gothic arches allows the story to move fluidly alongside an evocative lighting design. The cast is uniformly fantastic, marked by great performers offering sensitive acting and gorgeous singing. Ragtime is a show about optimism in the face of prejudice and poverty and the bright possibilities of the future. As its ballads are sung with fiery emotional force, it’s impossible not to find modern relevance in this stirring production.

And Whoopi Goldberg raved about the show on The View:

Positive

Joe Dziemianowicz at Daily News: It’s hard to argue with a revival as surefooted as Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s strikingly staged and vividly performed redo…. Dodge, who also did the spirited period choreography, has a keen eye for creating stage pictures with her large cast — all 40 of them. From a lone woman kneeling before a looming sky to a group of twirling silhouettes, her visuals exhilarate. Same goes for Flaherty and Ahrens’ stirring score. It has moments of true magic. But it has issues, too. There are so many anthems that it becomes a power-ballad pileup and a case of diminishing returns. A song like “What a Game!” — a bouncy baseball ditty featuring Bohmer and the crowd-pleasing Christopher Cox as his son — is a welcome change of pace. A song without … that … last … big … note.

Michael Kychwara at Associated Press: Surely there are not many opening numbers better than the intoxicating first moments of Ragtime…. The show’s themes and characters are introduced lickety-split in a thrilling combination of song, story and movement that goes a long way toward explaining what musical theater is all about. Ragtime… will never be a small show. Yet director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge… has managed to scale back some, if not all, of its reverential pageantry. She allows the audience to concentrate on individuals in the three distinct groups that march through Doctorow’s massive tale…. What made the original so enticing was not so much the lavishness of its setting but the impeccable casting that anchored the show…. In this revival, the actors are not quite as accomplished in creating credible portraits even though Dodge has given them more breathing space in which to come alive.

David Finkle at TheatreMania: Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, and Terrence McNally’s Ragtime, the great American musical of the late 20th Century, and Marcia Milgrim Dodge’s revival… is every bit as rousing, as moving, and as trenchant on the subject of the American melting pot coming to a turbulent boil as any prior production of the show I’ve seen. There’s no point hammering away at the high quality of the ragtime-infused and heartfelt score (which has undergone only minor revisions since the show’s original Broadway production) or harping on the fact that it has one too many plant-your-feet-on-the-stage-and-declaim anthems. Likewise, there’s no point to singing the cast’s praises at length, although they uniformly perform with fervor reflecting a nation struggling sometimes thrillingly, sometimes shabbily to attain equilibrium.

Peter Marks at The Washington Post: In most important ways, director Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s economical staging retains the infectiously melodious appeal of the version that worked to such stimulating effect in the Eisenhower. Several of the carryover performers, in fact, have deepened their interpretations…. What’s achieved here is confirmation that even if Ragtime is not a seminal American musical, it can be, via Terrence McNally’s libretto and Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’s score, a very rewarding one, an impressive distilling of a panoramic novel and a moving account of the momentous currents of a turbulent age.

Michael Feingold at The Village Voice: The mixture of elements in such works, while never quite coalescing, gives them an exceptional density…. Even when the story runs thin… as happens late in Ragtime, you never feel like you’ve been shortchanged: Something else is always being evoked, supplying the aesthetic equivalent of moral support…. Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s new production successfully arouses… the sense it gives of being in that musical heaven where the artists do everything right….Dodge’s production… enhances the work’s tautness by linking its criss-crossed stories more sharply, and pushing for heightened tensions in Terrence McNally’s book…. Like the straight lines of Dodge’s lucid but slightly rigid staging, the production’s moral lines of good and bad are sometimes too simplistically drawn.

Mixed

Wendy Castor at Show Showdown: In Ragtime, Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), Stephen Flaherty (music), and Terrence McNally (book) give us a sprawling, robust, beautiful, and flawed look at the early 20th century as imagined by E.L. Doctorow in his novel of the same name. The politics are odd… and the scope of the story sometimes comes at the cost of depth and full characterizations. But the score is glorious, the lyrics are often wonderful, and the book manages to corral the three main story lines into a compelling and coherent whole…. This revival, having only a very very good cast, suffers in comparison (with the original). The somewhat uneven production has many more strengths than weaknesses, and the 30-person orchestra sounds wonderful.

John Simon at Bloomberg News: It is good to have Ragtime back on Broadway. The 1998 show, with book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, is a significant musical that narrowly misses being a great one. Even so, compared to what nowadays passes for a great musical (Wicked, for example), Ragtime is nothing short of a masterpiece…. The revival has a spectacular three-tiered unit set that suggests the main pavilion of some World’s Fair on which the brilliant designer Derek McLane works minor changes for different locations that – except for ships at sea and a baseball game – work very nicely…. Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s staging is generally effective, though her choreography is somewhat less inventive than Graciela Daniele’s back in 1998. The current cast was apparently chosen for vocal prowess, with acting and looks secondary.

Elysa Gardner at USA Today: Those who plan to see (Ragtime) are advised to put away their thinking caps and bring their hankies. As a work of social commentary, Ragtime… is hokey and pedantic…. Ragtime‘s unabashed sentimentality is more compelling, though, thanks to the relative wit and grace of its creators…. The score, composed by Stephen Flaherty with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, is hardly A-list, but the songs are well-crafted and on occasion are genuinely soulful. And Terrence McNally’s book tugs at your heart and conscience with such artful aggression that only an ogre could resist the urge to weep at some points and smile at others. In this new Kennedy Center-based production, which opened Sunday, those assets are exploited by a supple cast under Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s vibrant direction.

Adam Feldman at Time Out New York: Marcia Milgrom Dodge offers us a tighter, leaner version of the show that whittles it down to the sinews. The impulse is right, but the results are mixed. For in stripping away the trimmings—except Santo Loquasto’s beautiful costumes—this revival exposes the boom-time naïveté and sentimentality that always lurked in the musical’s soul. In adapting E.L. Doctorow’s panoramic turn-of-the-20th-century novel to the stage, book writer Terrence McNally and lyricist Lynn Ahrens smooth out many of the spiky qualities that make it so compelling in the first place, often replacing clear-eyed observation with misty message-making. Many people loved Ragtime in its first go-around, and surely it will find passionate adherents this time as well. There is much to enjoy about it: Stephen Flaherty’s music, played by a rich-sounding orchestra, is often transporting… Dodge’s crisp staging on Derek McLane’s elegantly skeletal set gives her actors… a chance to stamp their roles with personality.

Ben Brantley at The New York Times: Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s appealingly modest new interpretation… often finds within this work’s panoramic sweep an affecting, uneasy human soul largely missing in the 1998 version…. Ragtime benefits from this less-is-more approach, but only to a degree. The show is hardly one of Sondheimesque complexity…. So to present a bare-bones Ragtime courts the danger of revealing how bare them bones are…. Mr. Flaherty’s score, which weaves variations on the rag form throughout, gives the show a natural momentum and unity, though it occasionally veers into annoying repetitiveness. I’m still not bowled over by the full-throated, teary songs about hope and loss and the future that awaits us…. On the other hand, I have new respect for Mr. Flaherty’s use of ragtime as the aural embodiment of something fresh and unsettling in a stale and settled world….

Jonathan Mandell at The Faster Times: The most visible change on the stage is the set…. It is easy to consider this an improvement, thanks to director Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s choreography (more posing than dancing, but done well); to the eye-catching costumes of Santo Loquasto… and to Donald Holder’s lighting…. My take on the original (to the extent that I remember it) was that, for all its wonderful and impressive moments, it was too big and too long and too self-important, not playful enough or soulful enough, almost intimidating. Whether you see the new Ragtime as a corrective or a continuation — as exhilarating or exhausting, stirring or stupefying… or your reaction, like mine, contains a bit of both extremes — will depend, I suspect, largely on your taste for the score…. As I sat in the theater, though, the cumulative effect of all this good and grand singing felt to me not just powerful but overpowering — and not completely in a good way.

Negative

Stephanie Zacharek at New York Magazine: Director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge and her 40-strong ensemble cast do their damnedest to keep things moving forward with the zeal and energy of a well-tuned engine. So why does the whole shebang come off like the product of a too-efficient assembly line? Neither Terrence McNally’s mishmash of a book nor the sometimes-syrupy songs (by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens) do the show any favors. And then there are the inherent problems of Doctorow’s novel, a puffed-out chest of a book that uses its characters as flattened symbols of racism, intolerance, hypocrisy, and disillusionment. It groans under its own lesson plan, and the musical follows suit…. The story itself just has too many cogs, wheels, and levers for mere mortals to operate properly. None of the characters is onstage long enough for us to truly connect with their stories. The best the actors can do is to keep shoveling coal into the show’s hungry maw of an engine.

Linda Winer at Newsday: It gets off to a spectacular start…. But Ragtime dwindles, as it has always dwindled…. Precision craftsmanship in the first act turns bland and earnest, just when the stakes are highest. As the material gets tough, Terrence McNally’s cleaned-up, de-sexed adaptation of Doctorow’s heavily erotic, subtly political fiction goes into sincerity-overload, while composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens turn from canny period-pastiche to poperatic ballads and bloated anthems. It is then that the fine intentions of this astute production can no longer mask the limitations of the cast, which is more capable than individually remarkable…. Finally, Ragtime remains an ambitious, handsome, derivative piece that’s ultimately too pat to be the great American musical it so doggedly intends to be.

Elisabeth Vincentelli at The New York Post: It’s big ideas, all right, with big songs, big stories and big personalities…. But while the stage overflows with outsize feelings and themes, they make relatively little impression. Can too much be too much? … Derek McLane’s towering three-tiered set evokes a steel beaux-arts cathedral, as if to say, “We’re dealing with important stuff here.” Along with two essential props (a Model T and a piano reduced to their skeletal frames), it also signals that the show intends to look at America’s very bone structure. Don’t expect an X-ray — “Ragtime” is more about XXL bathos. Where Doctorow was dry and cerebral, bookwriter Terrence McNally seems to have never seen a heartstring he didn’t want to pluck. This is compounded by Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s staging…. The score only adds another disconnect, juxtaposing frequently soaring music by Stephen Flaherty with leaden lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.

Hilton Als at The New Yorker: Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty, and Lynn Ahrens, who wrote the book, score, and lyrics, respectively, also drag the production down with a number of clichés and caricatures that soften and undermine Doctorow’s unsentimental, loving but tough view of the world. Once Ragtime passes into Flaherty and Ahrens’s hands, it becomes less a musical than a series of saccharine arias and duets that are made to carry most of the weight of exposition as well. It’s to the discredit of the creators of Ragtime that they use the surefire manipulation of nostalgia to sweeten the bitter truths that are laced throughout Doctorow’s grander vision. His story is far bloodier than what director Marcia Milgrom Dodge and her collaborators are willing to show, which says as much about the limitations of the American musical as anything.

Matthew Murray at Talkin’ Broadway: Is there a more maddening conundrum in the contemporary musical theatre than Ragtime? Its original 1998 Broadway production was too big to be financially viable, yet reducing all or any part of it causes it to crumple like aluminum foil… And it constantly says so much so loudly that it usually ends up saying nothing at all. It’s everything an artistic success should be, while openly deserving the flop status with which it’s so often associated…. (Changes to the score) identify Milgrom Dodge’s attempts to wrangle the show down to manageable size. But all they do is sap the power and passion from a story that need them operating at full strength from beginning to end. Worse, she’s demanded the same of the performers, many of whom make no impression at all.

Overall, Critic-o-meter rates the show at a B+. That seems about right to me. It saddens me to see the original production so unfavourably compared to this one in some of these reviews, as if this new production suddenly makes sense of a show that wasn’t served by its debut staging. If one casts aside the drama that surrounded the original staging, which prevented a completely assessment of the production itself back in the late 1990s, and looks at what was onstage, it was wonderful – with a far richer choreographic palate; design that, while elaborate, enhanced the show’s efficacy; and performances that are matched in this production, sometimes, but not topped. Still, its great to see a solid revival like this one in a season that has been slow for musical theatre on Broadway, particularly in regard to original works.

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