Ford Center, NY - April 1999

Review by John Kenrick

Making a return visit to a long-running Broadway musical is a tricky proposition. Warm memories of a show's original cast can set high standards, and more than one show has become worn around the edges as the years go by. On the other hand, new casts can bring insight and energy, letting you see a show in a different and exciting light. Such was the case when I returned to see Ragtime on Broadway in May 1999.

The score ofRagtime is a genuine masterpiece, one of the best written for the musical theatre in the last 25 years. The sumptuous melodies and well-crafted lyrics are vibrant and theatrical, the finest work Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty have yet done. Terrance McNally's book is also exceptional, bringing E.L. Doctorow's complex novel to the stage with all of the intricately interwoven characters and themes in place – which was not true of the film version some years ago. Ragtime's score and script (and CD) are so good that they are better than the show on stage.

The show's serious flaw is that it has been overproduced. Its heart is often buried under tons of scenery and half-finished production numbers. This is one production that had too much money and not enough ingenuity. More creative staging and simpler sets might have allowed this gem to beat out the fatuous Lion King for the Best Musical Tony in 1998. But as the saying goes, when you're served a fine feast it is silly to complain if the coffee is a little cold.

Normally I would pity anyone who had to follow in the footsteps of Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra MacDonald, Mark Jacoby, Peter Friedman, Lynette Perry and company – one of the finest original casts in many years. This is one time when the replacements more than hold their own, with interpretations that are different but no less effective. Thankfully, all are top-notch singers and acotrs – so the show is well-served in every way.

The little known Alton Fitzgerald White portrays Coalhouse Walker with tremendous power, and makes this imposing character a more accessible. LaChanze, who captivated audiences in Once On This Island, is riveting as Sarah. Her rendition of "You Are Your Daddy’s Son" was a brilliant, horrifying moment. Janine LaManna is delightful as Evelyn Nesbitt, and the handsome Scott Carollo does wonders with the difficult role of Mother's Younger Brother. Original cast members Jim Corti (Houdini), Tommy Hollis (Booker T. Washington) and the delicious Judy Kaye (Emma Goldman) are still fresh and shining in their respective roles.

The most important news is that John Rubenstein is giving the performance of his career as Tateh. I've admired his work on stage and screen for years, particularly his Broadway appearances in Pippin, Children of a Lesser God and M Butterfly. Passionate, charismatic and singing better than ever (no, I am not kidding!), Rubenstein blew me through the wall and clear out onto 42nd Street. Here is a Tateh strong enough to expand the focus of the play beyond Coalhouse, restoring the wider view of the novel and making the entire show far more satisfying. The audience quickly fell in love with Rubenstein’s Tateh, and I have more admiration than ever for this wonderful actor. Like his late father, John Rubenstein is a world-class artist. He alone was worth the price of admission, and I hope he returns to Broadway in a new musical very, very soon.

If you did not see the original cast of Ragtime, you missed something very special. If you don't see this cast, you're making the same mistake twice.

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