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Review: 'Ragtime' ambitious, but bland

It gets off to a spectacular start, the Kennedy Center revival of "Ragtime" that moved to Broadway with no big names and a director/ choreographer - Marcia Milgrom Dodge - who will not be unknown for long.

The musical, which first opened a dozen years ago at the cavernous Ford Theatre, is brash, poetic and inviting in the far more intimate Neil Simon Theatre. In those opening scenes, characters from the three separate stories of E.L. Doctorow's wonderful tapestry of a novel cleverly introduce themselves in the third person and arrange themselves by race and class on Derek McLane's airy triple-decker filigree set.

Meanwhile, the title song, quite miraculously, establishes all the overlapping threads - the fancy-pants WASPs from New Rochelle, upwardly mobile blacks from Harlem, Jews from Eastern Europe, bigots, real-life radicals, industrialists, daredevils and celebrities - that twist in the turn-of-the-20th-century American epic.

But "Ragtime" dwindles, as it has always dwindled, ever since its controversial premiere, so obsessively assembled and overproduced by impresario Garth Drabinsky (recently convicted in Canada of fraud and forgery). Precision craftsmanship in the first act turns bland and earnest, just when the stakes are highest. As the material gets tough, Terrence McNally's cleaned-up, de-sexed adaptation of Doctorow's heavily erotic, subtly political fiction goes into sincerity-overload, while composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens turn from canny period-pastiche to poperatic ballads and bloated anthems.

It is then that the fine intentions of this astute production can no longer mask the limitations of the cast, which is more capable than individually remarkable. As an ensemble, especially in the haunting and syncopated choruses, the company works beautifully. Quentin Earl Darrington is impressive as a man-mountain of a Coalhouse Walker, the ragtime musician first radicalized by a bigot's destruction of his Model-T. And Bobby Steggert brings a startling, wiry electricity to the relatively small role of Mother's Younger Brother.

But it is hard to escape the shadow of the original cast, which included Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Peter Friedman and Marin Mazzie.

Finally, "Ragtime" remains an ambitious, handsome, derivative piece that's ultimately too pat to be the great American musical it so doggedly intends to be. Better this, however, than shows content with so much less.

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