Jess Cagle
February 13, 1998 AT 05:00 AM EST

Broadway is a strange place, where Carrie was once turned into a musical, where people have paid good money to hear Lauren Bacall sing, and where the largely white, privileged audience seems to really go for shows about destitute minorities. It’s the last phenomenon that has brought us two of this season’s most talked-about musicals: Ragtime, based on the E.L. Doctorow novel, and The Capeman, Paul Simon’s debut as a Broadway composer.

Putting beauty before egregiousness, let’s start with Ragtime. Doctorow’s 1975 novel — so smart and sprawling — isn’t a natural candidate for pop pilfering (“It’s limp” was how Pauline Kael summed up director Milos Forman’s 1981 movie adaptation). Yet here’s a splashy, $10 million musical adhering closely to the book, in which three diverse families (WASPs, African Americans, and Jewish immigrants) personify America’s own growing pains at the turn of the century. And the result is a revelation — breathtakingly, poetically relevant.

At the heart of the story are the dashing musician Coalhouse Walker and his lover, Sarah, played by Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald (together, their awesome voices sound like an angelic chorus on steroids). Theirs is a love affair between themselves and their country, but their optimism is sadly naive. By the end of the first act, Coalhouse has been terrorized by white racists, Sarah is dead (killed when she innocently approaches vice presidential candidate James Sherman), and Coalhouse has turned to revenge.

Director Frank Galati and writer Terrence McNally have constructed a brilliant collage of Doctorow’s sweeping metaphors, intricately drawn characters, and historical fact. Henry Ford makes a song-and-dance appearance, as do Harry Houdini and vaudeville beauty Evelyn Nesbit, and a moving subplot about the hopeful immigrant Tateh (the electrifying actor Peter Friedman) becomes the story of American filmmaking.

The lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty (Once on This Island), with their old-fashioned ballads and period tunes, make some of the most glorious music you’ll hear on Broadway, and Eugene Lee’s sets give the proceedings a remarkable fluidity. But the most impressive feats in Ragtime — which has already opened in Toronto and Los Angeles — are performed by the cast, notably Marin Mazzie as the Victorian WASP matriarch who chafes at the boundaries of tradition. Against the wishes of her domineering, conservative husband (Mark Jacoby), she takes in the unwed Sarah at the start of the show and brings Coalhouse into their well-ordered lives. With a voice at once clear, dignified, and aching, Mazzie creates the compassionate, restless soul to which the story is anchored.

There are no such great feats in The Capeman, though it does feature some fine new Paul Simon songs, in which ’50s doo-wop and Puerto Rican flavors are nicely wedded to his balladeering. But on stage, to put it kindly, The Capeman doesn’t live up to its score.

Simon — who tightly controlled the production and went through directors the way Mike McCurry goes through excuses — has fashioned his lackluster musical out of the true story of Salvadore Agrón, a Puerto Rican youth who stabbed two teens to death in New York City in 1959. (A member of the Vampires gang, he was dubbed the Capeman because of his fashion statement.) Agrón was sentenced to death, found God, was pardoned, and died a free man in 1979.

With this moving story laid out for him, Simon (who collaborated with Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott) ignores its most compelling aspects — Agrón goes to prison and finds God during intermission — and instead constructs a poor apologia for the murderer as victim. (If the musical were more clearheaded, the protesters who’ve picketed it for “glorifying” Agrón might be on to something.) The misdirected stars, actor-singer Ruben Blades and salsa heartthrob Marc Anthony, perform poker-faced and stiff, as if Simon himself had given them charisma lessons; even with a knife, Anthony seems no more menacing than Art Garfunkel.

Despite Broadway’s affinity for musicals about the poor and tempest tossed, the $11 million Capeman could become the costliest flop in Broadway history. Perhaps, for his next show, Simon can tell the true story of some destitute investors.

Ragtime (TM): A The Capeman (TM): D

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