Ragtime: Neil Simon Theatre, 1/9/10

15 01 2010

Ragtime was set to close on January 3, 2010 – then miraculously extended a week due to a last-minute surge in ticket sales.  Back in NC over my winter break, I read the playbill.com article announcing the extension and jumped for joy; I could conceivably fly back to LA on January 2, start my winter quarter of classes on January 4, then fly to NYC and back the next weekend.  Crazy?  Yes.  But in half an hour, I had made up my mind and booked a flight.  After all, my New Year’s Resolution was to be more spontaneous! I had been saving up for a NYC trip, hoping to see the opening of Broadway Bound in December – a plan which was thwarted by the premature close of Brighton Beach Memoirs, with which it was set to run in rep.  Why not take those savings and put them to use before another show prematurely closed?

My expectations for Ragtime were almost absurdly high.  Manny was one of the lead producers, and Manny doesn’t produce just any show.  Over the years, he has a track record of producing only shows in which he has a deep artistic faith, first and foremost.  Friends who had seen Ragtime (Andrew at the Kennedy Center, as well as Heather, Stephanie, and I.T. once it transferred to Broadway) had raved about it.  Manny likes a good visceral reaction, and this show had the waterworks flowing for most of my friends.  Once I booked my flight, I intentionally avoided the cast album and reviews that might reveal too much.  I wanted my experience to be as fresh and visceral as possible.

Here is where the review breaks down, because I am not quite sure how to write about what I experienced that afternoon at the Neil Simon Theatre, nor have I intimately studied the libretto and score yet – no scholarly analysis allowed!  I am usually most interested in the structure of a musical and the individual performances.  Based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel of the same title, Ragtime intertwines the stories of three American families – an upper-class caucasian family, an immigrating Eastern European Jewish family, and an African-American family – alongside historical figures like Harry Houdini and Booker T. Washington.  Ragtime music arises at the juncture of these cultures: a juncture which can be both harmonious and explosive.  With 40 outstanding cast members (including a dear old Duke friend Bobby Steggert as Younger Brother) and 28 musicians, Ragtime epitomizes a force of talent that can no longer be economically sustained on the Broadway stage.  (And just think, this production was pared down from the original!)  What’s more, Ragtime embodies a beautiful multicultural social vision that did, in fact, bring me to tears by the finale.  The production not only met, but exceeded my expectations.

But Ragtime will linger with me as much for the incredible performances, rich story and score, and inspiring social vision, as for the communal experience of theater-going.  The audience response to Ragtime was truly unique, unlike anything I have ever before experienced.  My friend Anna was in already tears midway through Act One with Stephanie Umoh’s rendition of “Your Daddy’s Son.”  We watched audience members lift their glasses to dry their eyes periodically throughout Act Two.  And by the end of the show, everyone in the audience was sniffling.  Following a standing ovation, the house lights came up and audience members actually turned to one another as they wiped away their tears – smiled at one another, laughed a little at their unexpected emotional response, and maybe even spoke a few words to a stranger in acknowledgement of what a remarkable theatrical experience they had just witnessed.

Yes, this description is rather utopian.  Yes, I realize that the audience was predominately white upper-class Americans who could afford a night at the theater in this economy, as well as repeat visitors with an already-established love for the show.  But still, something resonated with the audience that night.  Something sparked their imaginations and their emotions.  And something sparked mine.  My facebook status that night read:

How can a single show simultaneously renew your excitement about the American musical and bring you to the crushing realization that the “Broadway” you want to be a part of may no longer exist? Goodbye, Ragtime.

Next up are thoughts on precisely that: the myth of Broadway – what it was and what it currently is – largely through the lens of producer Manny Azenberg, with whom I had had breakfast that morning.

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2 responses

20 01 2010
brilliantbrunettecollection

Enjoyed reading this. I absolutely fell in love with this production of Ragtime and was sad to see it go. It will forever live in my memory.

16 12 2010
A Year in Theater: 2010 « Sarah Taylor Ellis

[…] (Neil Simon Theatre) – Review The emergency trip to NYC for closing weekend was one of the best decisions I have ever made. […]

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