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NY Theater Reviews

Christine Noll/Ph: Joan Marcus

CHANGING OF THE GUARD

By MATT WINDMAN

This revival of Ragtime comes pretty close to duplicating the opulence of the original. And the actors bring big voices and powerful acting to the proceedings.

It's been 11 years since the 1998 Tony Awards and I am still pissed that Ragtime lost the Tony for Best Musical to The Lion King. It would appear that the critical jury is still out on this epic musical based on E.L. Doctorow's classic novel that interlocks stories involving rich white Protestants in New Rochelle, less affluent African Americans in Harlem, and struggling Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side.

While some consider it gorgeous, inspiring and immensely moving, others find it too rushed and jam-packed with exposition and inspirational ballads. The fact that its original Canadian producer has now been found guilty of committing massive financial fraud probably won't help matters.

The opulence of the original production is unlikely to ever again be matched - but the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. has come pretty close to it. Its brand-new $4.4 million production of the musical sports a 38-member cast, 28-person orchestra, an eight-ton, four-level steel set, and many of the original Broadway costumes. And as staged with stunning clarity by Marcia Miligrom Dodge, it is nothing short of a monumental achievement for the Kennedy Center. It's a shame that it's not likely to run longer or transfer somewhere else.

Derek McLane's skeletal multi-level set, on which many characters often hover high above the audience next to gothic arches, at first makes you feel too far away. But soon enough, you realize that it allows the actors to observe the action even when they are not required to be onstage, which allows the direct, narrative flavor of the musical's incredible prologue to carry forth throughout the entire production. It also forces Coalhouse to run down four flights of stairs after witnessing Sarah get brutally beaten by the police. Brilliant.

The cast is marked by terrific performers offering sensitive acting and powerful vocals including Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse), Jennlee Shallow (Sarah), Manoel Felciano (Tateh), Bobby Steggert(Younger Brother), Ron Bohmer (Father) and Christine Nolll (Mother). Even Leigh Ann Larkin, who played June in Patti LuPone's Gypsy, makes the most of a cameo role like Evelyn Nesbit.

Bobby Steggert, who was terrific two seasons ago in the Broadway revival of 110 in the Shade, stands out as the well-off but emotionally lost youth who is looking desperately for a cause to believe in .

Manoel Felciano, who played Tobias in the 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd, looks pretty young to play Tateh, but is still pretty excellent. Ron Bohmer brings a boyish charm to Father, who sadly cannot understand or accept the changes of the coming century. Christine Noll is lovely as the frustrated Mother and brings a yearning spirit to her ballads.

It feels rather timely to be doing Ragtime immediately after the election of America's first black president. It's a show about optimism in the face of prejudice and poverty and about the bold possibilities of the future. In this grim economic environment, who doesn't need a reminder that the "Wheels of a Dream" can take us forward to a brighter tomorrow.