Porchlight’s Ragtime

From Aug ’07 Spotlight: The first time I saw the musical Ragtime, I thought it was just OK. The year was 1998 and the venue was the newly-restored Oriental Theatre on Randolph (current home of the smash hit Wicked). It was a massive production on a huge stage, and since I’d already read E. L. Doctorow’s novel (published in 1974) and seen Milos Foreman’s screen adaptation (released in 1981), I simply assumed that epic size was required. I was wrong. The Porchlight Music Theatre started its Ragtime run in a tiny 150-seat box in the Theater Building on Belmont in April, and moved to the 461-seat Apollo Theater on Lincoln in June. When I saw it on June 24, I was completely overwhelmed. The PR package calls this a new “jewel box” production. Jewels indeed: diamonds, rubies, emeralds, all!

Ragtime opens in 1906, when American innocence was at its peak. In the prologue, the head of a prosperous family tells us: “There were no Negroes.” His suburban neighbors echo him and add: “There were no Negroes and there were no immigrants.” But they quickly learn how wrong they are as numerous African-American and Jewish characters dance onto stage.

If your primary knowledge of this material comes from the film, you won’t expect much Jewish content, but Doctorow (born in 1931) is the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, and his first successful book (The Book of Daniel) was loosely based on the life of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The musical honors his background by creating a surprisingly big role for Emma Goldman; her passionate oratory is thrilling as song, providing a solid social critique that knits the personal dramas together. And the intimacy of the staging helps us believe that this historical figure might actually have had personal contact with various key characters (some real and others fictional), as they bump and collide throughout.

In her June 18 review, SunTimes critic Hedy Weiss called this “a soaring, tremendously vivid production… sure to set the bar for all future Chicago-mounted musicals.” I agree. Much as I loved the Fiorello! staged by Timeline Theatre Company in June ‘06 (which recently received ten Jeff Citation nominations and won four), I think Porchlight’s Ragtime is even better. Who needs Broadway? Chicago’s musical theater riches are beyond measure!

Ragtime runs through August 26. For tickets, visit: www.porchlighttheatre.com

For an analysis of Ragtime in three media, visit:
www.films42.com/feature/ragtime.asp

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