No one in Ragtime is having many laughs, and it’s a small miracle that this production is as vibrant as it is: The spare truss-work of the set is offset by Santo Loquasto’s costumes—bowlers, sweeping duster coats, ruffly pastel day dresses. The performers at least try to make their characters three-dimensional, which in some cases means adding a dimension that wasn’t written in the first place: Quentin Earl Darrington’s Coalhouse, in particular, makes a believable transition from gifted, hopeful citizen to beleaguered, embittered outsider.
But the story itself just has too many cogs, wheels, and levers for mere mortals to operate properly. None of the characters is onstage long enough for us truly to connect with their stories. The best the actors can do is to keep shoveling coal into the show’s engine. By the time that, deep into the second act, Noll’s Mother takes the stage to pour out her prefeminist disillusionment—“We can never go back to before,” she sings, her nostrils flaring earnestly—the future can’t come soon enough. The story told in Ragtime starts in 1906 and ends sometime before 1914, yet by the time it ends, it seems a whole century has passed: It’s too late to go back to before, to the days when every song on Broadway didn’t have to be an empowerment ballad. —S.Z.