After the most successful, sold-out run in Theatre Building Chicago’s history, Porchlight Music Theatre’s epic production of the mega-hit musical “Ragtime” has effortlessly moved over to the larger Apollo Theatre for an open run. It’s the brainchild of Canadian producer Garth Drabisnky, who had just had a mammoth success restaging “Show Boat” on Broadway and across the world—he wanted to mount a new, uniquely “American” musical (only in Canada) and sought the rights to E. L. Doctorrow’s popular novel. Doctorow, who had been burned when he allowed the book to be made into a 1981 Milos Forman film that reduced the threads of the novel to a single character and became a comeback vehicle for retired film star James Cagney, had learned his lesson and would only allow the adaptation if he himself were given full creative control over every aspect of the production, which to Drabinsky’s everlasting credit, he gave. The carefully crafted end result was a show that in many ways surpassed Doctorow’s book in its pure heart and emotional power, giving audiences an opportunity to actually feel the struggles, dreams, triumphs and tragedies of three diverse American families through a sensational Stephen Flaherty score that mirrors the music idioms of the early twentieth century. Chicagoan Frank Galati’s staging was so tied to the original show that few have been able to make “Ragtime” work without it, though happily, Porchlight Music Theatre’s artistic director L. Walter Stearns succeeds where so many others have failed by having enough faith in the work itself to let it speak for itself and dictate what happens on stage. This is the largest production that Porchlight has mounted and all of the stops have been pulled out, from first-class leads who can deliver the goods on the show’s eleven o’clock numbers down to singing and dancing children. Experiencing “Ragtime” in a post-9/11 environment offers a fresh examination of our own prejudices and fears with scenarios that could, sadly enough, be culled right out of today’s headlines. (Dennis Polkow)
Apollo Theater, 2540 North Lincoln, (773)935-6100. Thu-Sat 8pm/Sun 3:30pm. $46.50. Open run.