RAGTIME hits
all the right notes

By CLIVE BARNES

WOW! The new musical "Ragtime" is not simply a colossal hit, it is a fantastic machine for a colossal hit, firing on all cylinders
like gangbusters.

You might have thought it couldn't have been done in this day and age - a totally (well, totally enough) successful, traditional all-American Broadway musical.

Well, it has been done. "Ragtime" last night swept into the new and splendid Ford Center for the Performing Arts like a tidal wave - unstoppable, irresistible.

Who cares if in an odd way it seems closer to Rodgers & Hammerstein than to Stephen Sondheim? "Ragtime" has the Broadway belt and (at last we can say it again with some geographical correctness) the 42nd Street glitz. And when I said "traditional musical" I never meant to suggest that "Ragtime" is unadventurous or unimaginative.

On the contrary, little could be more theatrically risky than the very concept of its producer, Garth Drabinsky, to make a musical from E.L. Doctorow's epic but diffuse New York novel of this nation's watershed years during the first two decades of the century.

Did our American century really start to the sound of a different drummer, or rather a strident stride piano, whose syncopated, broken-backed rhythms virtually personified a new age of change and diversity? 

This in essence is the bold symbolic subtext of Doctorow's panoramic view of a nation in motion, expressed in his novel and so faithfully caught by this musical based on it. 

Fascinatingly, the evening offers an entirely workable double standard. Thematically and theatrically, it is excitingly contemporary, from its literary sophistication and social awareness, to its computer-controlled staging. Yet, musically, it remains cozily old-fashioned, even when mightily effective.

When I first saw "Ragtime" at its Toronto out-of-town premiere rather more than a year ago, it needed a lot of work, much in terms of fine-tuning. This has been largely accomplished - the second act is still weaker than the first, but it doesn't drag as it did in Toronto - and the performances have filled out with time and experience.

Seen as strands of the national tapestry is the interweaving tale of three families, but the key motivating incident of "Ragtime" is a thin anecdote of racial insult and injustice. 

This, which Doctorow cleverly amplified from Heinrich von Kleist's famous 1808 novella, "Michael Kohlhaas," reveals the search for respect of the hero, black ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr., which spirals up - with more fancy than likelihood - into a national riot.

Terrence McNally has done a thrilling job in getting to the unbalanced heart of Doctorow's mind-catching novel - with all its bombast and poetry, vision and melodrama - and making it viable on stage and accessible to music.

Lynn Ahrens' lyrics also play fair by Doctorow's personal voice, and Stephen Flaherty's score while almost electrically eclectic - from primarily Joplinesque rags to a call for justice that might have emerged from the barricades of "Les Miz" - is never less than tuneful.

Apart from McNally, and, of course, Doctorow, the real creative heroes of the night are the director Frank Galati (who has achieved miracles in glueing the thing together), the choreographer Graciele Daniele (whose seamless musical staging is delicate, vibrant and amazing) and the whole brilliantly evocative design team led by Eugene Lee and costume designer Santo Loquasto.

"Ragtime" is indeed the family portrait of the century - or at least the first 15 years of it. And against this moving picture of old-time New York is placed the performances - each, as in the novel, a seemingly perfectly calculated vignette of person or historical personage.

As in any group photograph, individuals stand out by placement, sometimes the imprint of personality, sometimes both coming together. "Ragtime" has a great cast from tip to toe, from top to bottom.

Brian Stokes Mitchell as Coalhouse is so charismatic critics should wish they'd never used the word before, that wondrous actress/singer Audra McDonald is truly heartbreaking as his wife, Peter Friedman and Marin Mazzie, as two oddly assorted harbingers of the new age, are both perfect, as is Mark Jacoby, as the emblematic stuffy, eternally middle-aged, white Anglo-Saxon male, destined to be that same age's joke, villain, victim and survivior.

Yet it is the musical's overall triumph that the smaller roles are as carefully envisaged, cast and executed as those basically propelling the action. Steven Sutcliffe is extraordinary as a young liberal revolutionary, Judy Kaye beautifully brings to life one of the show's many historical figures, labor leader Emma Goldman, and a winsome Lynnette Perry does the same for that "girl on the red velvet swing," Evelyn Nesbit. 

Look where you like - it's a terrific cast. And it's a show that takes the heartbeat of a legendary New York, half-real, half-hoped and totally imagined, and puts it in a bottle. What, you can't put a heartbeat in a bottle? Go and see for yourself. No one in their right minds will want to miss this.

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