Saturday, May 01, 2010

Ragtime Resplendent at Drury Lane Oakbrook

Theater Review

Ragtime: the Musical
Drury Lane Oakbrook
Oakbrook Terrace, IL 

Originating shortly before my musical awakening (as detailed in this post), I was oblivious to Ragtime: the Musical--based on E.L. Doctorow's famed book that I've never read--when it bowed on Broadway in 1998.

Even when a Chicago production re-opened the beautiful Oriental Theatre (officially dubbed the Ford Center for the Performing Arts) later that same year and stayed through much of 1999, I never bothered to see what it is was all about.

Silly me.

For now, long after I introduced myself to the Original Cast Recording and have seen the show about America in the early 1900s in productions around Chicago, I consider it the third best musical of the 1990s, behind only Rent and The Lion King, which beat out Ragtime for the 1998 Best Musical Tony Award.

That said, and with high praise fully intended, Ragtime isn't one of my very tip-top favorite musicals, and I would rate its content--music, lyrics, story--@@@@1/2 out of 5. But then, I would--perhaps somewhat curmudgeonly--give only about 10 musicals ever perfect marks for content.

Although the content of a show obviously impacts how much I might enjoy seeing it in any incarnation, only the original creators can truly be held responsible for the songs, dialogue, etc. and anyone who presents a show subsequent to its Broadway run (or other initial staging) is to be judged largely on the relative quality of their production (while taking into account the confinements often dictated by economics, venue size, etc.).

In that regard, but also factoring in my strong enjoyment of the source material, the rendition of Ragtime now running at Drury Lane Oakbrook until May 23 clearly deserves @@@@@. From the imaginative scenery, to a robust orchestra, to the performances and singing throughout (including by a couple actors who came from the recent Broadway revival), this is a magnificent production.

Below, I will post a video of the opening number from the original Broadway production of Ragtime (directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Frank Galati). Although--or perhaps because--the stage is much smaller at Drury Lane, its handling of the opening number, entitled Ragtime, is more inventive and richer than the Broadway version (as far as I could tell from a YouTube video).

Director Rachel Rockwell and Scenic Designer Kevin Depinet devised a set that looks fantastic, the music (composed by Stephen Flaherty, directed here by Roberta Duchak, who performed in the original Broadway edition) sounded great and both the acting and vocal delivery (of Lynn Ahrens' lyrics) by a 33-member cast were incredibly impressive.

I've enjoyed Larry Adams and Cory Goodrich (left) in several past performances on Chicago area stages, and their work here as Mother and Father was excellent, as was that of Broadway revival cast veterans Quentin Earl Darrington (as Coalhouse Walker, center in the photo above) and Valisia LeKae (as his beloved Sarah).

Drury Lane--now run by Kyle DeSantis, who seems to be infusing the Oakbrook Terrace shows with larger budgets than did his late grandfather Tony (Drury Lane's founder)--has much to be proud of. While I've seen and enjoyed several shows at DRO over the last decade, and have found its quality somewhat akin to that at two other suburban musical theater venues--Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire and Theatre at the Center in Munster--of the three, I've always considered Marriott to be the best with DRO a step below, only slightly above TATC.

But with the sublime Ragtime coming after stellar productions of Cabaret and Curtains in 2009, Drury Lane Oakbrook now seems to be clearly as good if not better than Marriott Lincolnshire (though mind you, I certainly don't see every production at any of the three).

And while I've enjoyed every production I've seen of Ragtime, including a free Wilmette Park District version, I can assure you that even if a touring edition of the Broadway revival comes to Chicago in the next few years--which seems doubtful--it will not be any better than what you can see at Drury Lane right now. (And for those like me, who always appreciate a good discount, check; free registration required.)

(As mentioned above, this is the opening number from the 1998 Broadway cast. You can also see some short clips from the Drury Lane production here. Lovers of ragtime music should also check out this post.)

1 comment:

G1000 said...

I would agree that "Ragtime" is not quite a perfect play. One plot development at the end of the first act felt cheesy, and a couple of the songs aren't that memorable. But this production was astonishing. I really hope it finds another theatre to run in after its time at Drury Lane is over, because I would love to see it again.

"Back to Before" has become one of my all-time favorite songs, by the way.