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Theater Review: Ragtime

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Music by Stephen Flaherty.

Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.

Book by Terrence McNally.

Directed by Frank Galati.

Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow.

At the Colonial Theatre, now through March.

Ragtime is a show to be respected and admired. Too bad; I rather wish it were the show to be enjoyed and loved. It's based on the seminal 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, which was adapted into a film in 1981. Doctorow reportedly didn't like the film, very much in the same way Ken Kesey didn't like Forman's adaptation of his One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Too bad, again, both films are arguably better than their sources.

When Doctorow was approached about turning his novel into a stage musical, he reportedly asked all the candidates if they liked the movie, and accepted only the ones who didn't. For the third and last time, too bad. Ragtime the musical has a good deal of the novel's faults, and only some of its strength, while the film managed to streamline and condense the narrative into a highly entertaining two-and-a-half hours.

The main difficulty in compressing the novel lies, of course, in the narrative's highly complex structure. The novel has at least a dozen interwoven plots and subplots, a huge number of characters, some of whom are real historical personages, and Doctorow's inimitable, graceful and fluid prose, firmly classical in its pedigree but with playful syncopations. The film played with the converging and diverging stories for a while, until focusing firmly on one central story: that of a ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. and his increasingly desperate fight for justice.

The musical tries to stick with all (or at least most) of the novel's subplots. The result is, fortunately, not a mess one could expect. All the stories and plot twists are delivered in a very lucid manner, but it sorely lacks a good deal of excitement. The intersecting stories dilute each other's impact, the musical numbers take the time which could have been otherwise spent on plot, and, with all the considerable talent and skill evident on stage every second, one thing is missing: fun.

It's missing from about every aspect of the production. The music is nice, but neither hummable nor memorable; acting is totally proficient, but rather obvious, with only a couple of moments when the character's next action is not easily predictable; and the director keeps throwing elaborate set pieces, which ultimately distract from a good deal of innovative staging.

To be fair, there's nothing particularly wrong with Ragtime; it's just that the ingredients simmer, never truly reaching the boiling point. Or make it almost never: there is an impassioned love ballad, directed towards nothing else but a Model T Ford; there is a song about two obsessed men meeting in a dark warehouse, which initially sounds like a hodgepodge of empty rhetoric, but ends on a truly brilliant and subversive punchline; and, finally, the seemingly unnecessary song about baseball ends up as one of the most enjoyable, not only because its theme (several equal groups of people - in this case, fans of different teams - suddenly starting to hate each other with fervid gusto) is one of the major themes of the show, but also because it's plain fun.

Overall, while I had quite an agreeable time, I've seen more enjoyable productions on the college level. Factoring in the ticket prices (up to $75), I would recommend you simply renting the movie it's truly good, and it has an excellent ragtime soundtrack.