History and Hollow U.S. Patriotism

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Byline: MICHAEL COVENEY

Ragtime (Ford Center) Verdict: Extravagant birth-of-a-nation vaudeville

1776 (Gershwin) Verdict: Dull revolutionary concept-of-a-nation with songs THIS has been an extraordinary season on Broadway, with the home-grown musical theatre fighting back - with mixed results - after years of British domination, and two breathtaking venues being unveiled right there on 42nd Street.

The first was the astoundingly refurbished New Amsterdam, where The Lion King continues to be the talk of the town, and rightly so.

The second is the Ford Center, a new construction incorporating architectural features of two famous old houses, the Lyric (1903) and the Apollo (1920).

Both theatres are part of the government-sponsored 42nd Street redevelopment, but the Ford is also the dream project of the Toronto-based impresario Garth Drabinsky, who made his name and money touring Lloyd Webber musicals in North America.

Ragtime - which opens officially next weekend after sell-out seasons in Toronto and Los Angeles and comes to London next year -i s a faithful and expertly engineered version of E. L.

Doctorow's 1975 novel (later a film by Milos Forman) in which dreams come true the hard way.

The great opening number says it all: competing phalanxes of white high society, black low life and Jewish immigrant aspiration cut their respective swathes through a syncopated rag. It is the sort of opening you want to go on for ever.

Thereafter, the various strands are dutifully unfolded in Terrence McNally's libretto, with guest appearances by J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman and Booker T .

Washington.

Sitting in the vast auditorium (1,821 seats) is like sitting in a conference centre, or a large Warner cinema. And the show feels as though it has been put together by a committee.

STEPHEN FLAHERTY and Lynn Ahrens's songs ain't Showboat. Whenever they lack the ragtime rhythms, they lack melody and wit. There is a lot of operatic huffing and puffing and a couple of toe-curling empty anthems to aspiration and the future. …