Paper Mill Playhouse - Millburn, NJ - June 2005
Reviewed by John Kenrick
(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions. All the photos below are used with the permission of Paper Mill.)
If you don't mind having to use your imagination a bit, you are in for a walloping good time at Paper Mill's musically and dramatically sumptuous production of Ragtime.
You won't have to imagine that you are hearing one of the great American musicals. Only true masters could have done such a fine job of turning E. L. Doctorow's sprawling novel about the early 1900's into a moving theatrical experience. The plot is actually a web of lives, some real and some fictional, tracing what happened as the white protestant establishment confronted the cultural shifts caused by the rise of Jewish immigrants and African Americans at the start of the 20th Century.
Composer Stephen Flaherty provides a breathtaking rainbow of sound, blending elements of early 20th Century popular music with the finest of contemporary Broadway. Thanks to Lynn Ahrens, the lyrics are not only literate, but as dramatically compelling as Terence McNally's superb libretto. After a dismal Broadway season, re-visiting this modern classic is like finding a glistening oasis in the midst of a rather dull desert.
And you certainly won't have to imagine what this wonderful material is about. Recreating his West End staging of this show, director Stafford Arima has tossed aside the conceptual muddle and physical clutter that hindered the original Broadway version of Ragtime. No longer struggling against spectacle, the characters can now be more clearly defined, with a richness of subtle detail that was impossible in the cavernous Ford Center (now re-christened The Hilton Theatre, heaven help us). Robert Jones provides gorgeous period costumes, along with a dark unit set that is unrelentingly minimal and even drab. A bit of scrim or a lone piece of furniture is added from time to time, but for the most part the stage is left as an essentially bare playing space. This is pure theatre, as refreshing as it is daring in its simplicity.
Which means that audiences do have to imagine such things as Evelyn Nesbit's red velvet swing, or Coalhouse Walker's glistening Model T Ford. Each of these items is depicted on stage by plain black chairs. The elegant house on the hill is now no more than a piano and a small light fixture flown in from above. To those with meager or lazy minds, this may prove dismaying. To those of us who love bringing something to the theatrical process, it is like manna from heaven. My imagination had no trouble filling in the blanks. Paper Mill veteran Mark Stanley works wonders lighting what is there, Liza Gennaro provides fluid, period-perfect choreography, and Ragtime's original musical director David Loud conducts with a sure hand. The result is that the brilliance of the writing and the talents of a gifted cast shine through bright and clear.
Quentin Earl Darrington is a solid and believable Coalhouse Walker, and Kenita R. Miller is a warm and vulnerable Sarah -- their stirring duet "Wheels of a Dream" brought well-deserved cheers on opening night. Rachel York is radiant as Mother, making her transformation from meek Victorian housewife to gutsy modern woman completely believable. Her lush rendition of "Back to Before" is one of the production's many highlights. Neal Benari is superb as Tateh, making this character's rocky journey from penniless immigrant to Hollywood mogul touching and joyous. David Hess gives real human dimension to the mostly unsympathetic role of Father, and Shonn Wiley is both brilliant and irresistible as Mother's brooding Younger Brother. Heck, if the rest of the cast was not so strong, he could have stolen the show.
Betsy Wolfe portrays Evelyn Nesbit with just the right note of gurgling irony, and Kelly J. Rucker provides some powerhouse soul as Sarah's Friend. Other standouts in a large but uniformly solid ensemble include Tom Gamblin as the blustering J.P. Morgan, Greg Stone as an impossibly handsome racist fire chief, and Jeff Cyronek as a deliciously blustering Grandfather. Paper Mill casting director Alison Franck deserves credit for putting together such a fantastically talented mob.
It is a particular pleasure to see Paper Mill end a sometimes rocky season on such a strong note. This moving production of Ragtime seems to be what the company has been striving for under Michael Gennaro's leadership -- a fresh, innovative take on a great Broadway show. When I first saw Ragtime on Broadway back in 1998, I was so disappointed by the physical production (and so enthralled by the material) that I told a companion, "I can't wait to see what Paper Mill does with this show." My thanks and applause everyone at Paper Mill for fulfilling that seven year old hope with such rich simplicity.
Of course, I wouldn't have minded if they had thrown in a red velvet swing . . .
This limited run ended on July 17, 2005.