RagtimeWe’ve seen Ragtime a number of times over the years. The first was September 1997 in Los Angeles during the show’s pre-Broadway tryout. After that we saw the original production a couple times on Broadway followed a performance of the 2009 revival. Last night, Manhattan Concert Production staged a concert at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in honor of the 15th anniversary of the original Broadway run.

Just as the 2009 revival stripped the show down from it’s huge original production, this concert presentation stripped the show down again, removing all the trappings of staging and props and leaving just powerful voices. Joining the all-star cast was a orchestra that was about double of what most Broadway shows have and a chorus of some 150 members, which included some Ragtime alumni.

The cast for the one-night only concert was outstanding. Norm Lewis, recent Tony nominee for Porgy & Bess, was a powerful Coalhouse Walker Jr. Patina Miller, who is about to star in Pippin, was a beautiful Sarah. Lea Salonga, best known for Miss Saigon, was an amazing Mother. Howard McGillian, who has been the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera more than anyone else, was perfect as Father. Michael Arden, who I haven’t heard since promo recordings of Bare: A Pop Opera a number of years ago, gave a very soulful performance as Mother’s Younger Brother (please get this guy back on a NYC stage soon). Manoel Felciano, who was so outstanding in the 2006 Sweeney Todd revival, gave great voice to immigrant Tateh. Lilla Crawford, currently starring in the Annie revival, was Little Girl and that role didn’t give her a chance to unleash her powerful voice and that was ashame. The actors in the smaller supporting roles were equally impressive: Philip Boykin as Booker T. Washington, Kerry Butler as Evelyn Nesbit, Matt Cavenaugh as Henry Ford, Tyne Daly as Emma Goldman, Jarod Emick as Willie Conklin, Lewis Grosso as Little Boy, Dick Latessa as Grandfather, Jose Llana as Harry Houdini, Michael McCormick as J.P. Morgan and NaTasha Yvette Williams as Sarah’s Friend.

Despite my love of the other productions I’ve seen of Ragtime, this now ranks as my favorite. The concert setting let the music soar. Director Stafford Arima (who helmed two of my other recent favorite shows — Bare: The Musical and Carrie) put the focus squarely on telling the story with these amazing voices. The result was goosebump inducing from the piano’s opening notes of the prologue. I wasn’t sure, when I first heard about this concert, how the choir would be used, but it was very powerful, punctuating  powerful songs like “Till We Reach That Day,” “Success” and “New Music.”

Particular standouts last night included Salonga’s breathtaking “Back to Before,” Lewis’ soaring “Make them Hear You,” Salonga, McGillian, Arden, Lewis and Miller blending together with the choir for “New Music” and Salonga with Felciano for “Our Children.”

At the end of the show, it was cool to see the show’s writers–Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally–take a bow.

Each time I see Ragtime it alludes me how this epic American musical can’t seem to survive on Broadway. The original, which opened the same year as The Lion King, only ran a little over two years and the revival only ran a few months. With its powerful, and relevant, story and amazing score you would hope it would get more play than it does. I’m glad MCP gave it a first rate concert to celebrate its anniversary.

In the Playbill there’s mention that the concert is the first in MCP’s Broadway series. I look forward to seeing what they do next.

Here’s a look at the opening number from last night, courtesy of BroadwayWorld.com