Musical theater is such a collaborative art form that it is rare for all of the elements to be so perfectly aligned to make a show really work on every level. In the 1990s, that happened twice: with “Rent” and with “Ragtime.”
The brainchild of Canadian producer Garth Drabinsky who had just had a mammoth success restaging “Show Boat” on Broadway and across the world, Drabinsky wanted to mount a new, uniquely “American” musical (only in Canada) and sought the rights to E. L. Doctorow’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 Doctorow 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.
Chicago director Frank Galati’s staging was so tied to the original show that few have been able to make “Ragtime” work without it, but on the other side of the spectrum, a tiny company such as Porchlight Music Theatre put together an intimate version free of trappings that worked wonderfully well.
The Drury Lane approach is to smother the show in spectacle and apparently hope that its lack of attention to the most fundamental musical details will go unnoticed. For those whose primary interest in “Ragtime” is theatrical, there is much to be admired in director Rachel Rockwell’s lavish take, by far the largest production ever mounted at the west suburban venue. With a cast of thirty-three and a pit orchestra of twenty-two, the hydraulic-lift effects certainly leave plenty of “oohs” and “ahs” in their wake though it is worth noting that the computer projections were acting up at the performance I attended: during the climactic funeral scene, the audience was watching projections of computer menus.
But what the new generation of the DeSantis family that has overseen enormous expansion at the venue since patriarch Tony DeSantis passed away doesn’t seem to realize is that it is not enough to break the bank on smoke and mirrors. When you do a show such as “Ragtime,” you need a music director who can actually lead a large ensemble to play that namesake style of music—and many others of the early twentieth century—with crisp articulation, in rhythm and, above all, with its playful syncopations intact. Imagine a company putting on “Die Fledermaus” or “The Merry Widow” with all of the trimmings and forgetting to hire someone who can teach the performers how to execute a proper Viennese lilt and you have an idea of what a tedious experience sitting through this production is.
Of course, also needed on the budget is a solid vocal coach. It was sad to see so many veteran performers whose talents are well known here be reduced to having to reach for notes that came in consistently under pitch and under breath, or leads who were never taught that your emotional range need not be merely from x to z: there is a wide spectrum of emotions that this score communicates, but it was often as if we were experiencing a one-dimensional “Ragtime: The American Idol Edition.” That might work for “Grease,” but not for “Ragtime.” (Dennis Polkow)
“Ragtime” plays through May 23 at Drury Lane Oakbrook, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, (630)530-0111. $31-$45.