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‘Ragtime’ to Get U.S Premiere in Los Angeles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Ragtime,” the much-anticipated musical that premiered in Toronto to critical acclaim this week, will open at the Shubert Theatre in Century City in June.

Los Angeles will see the second production of the show, opening here before the Toronto show moves to Broadway in December 1997. Producer Garth Drabinsky said the Los Angeles “Ragtime” will cost $9.5 million to $10 million, as much as the first version.

Based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel, “Ragtime” depicts the clash of American cultures in the first two decades of the 20th century. The score is by lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, while the book was adapted by Terrence McNally.

One of North American musical theater’s dominant producers, Drabinsky is a Canadian entrepreneur whose Livent Inc. recently scored hits with “Show Boat” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” first in Toronto, then on Broadway and on tour. A year ago, he announced his intention to produce more often in Los Angeles--now with “Ragtime,” he said Tuesday, “I’m good to my word. We see doing a lot more in Los Angeles on an ongoing basis.”

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“I have a great deal of respect for the Los Angeles market,” he said. Indeed, box office for his production of “Show Boat,” currently at the Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre, will gross at least $18 million in its 20 weeks here, according to the producer.

Although major productions of musicals often come to Los Angeles after opening in New York, Drabinsky pointed to the U.S. premieres here of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard” and “Evita” as examples of shows that built their U.S. reputations after first opening in London.

Drabinsky called L.A. a city that is “able to get excited about a show whether or not it’s had a Broadway opening.”

Only 16 weeks of tickets will go on sale initially for the L.A. “Ragtime,” but the company’s stay here will be open-ended--lasting as long as box-office business warrants. When the show closes in L.A. the production will tour.

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Drabinsky’s desire to keep the show open here as long as possible helped steer him toward the Shubert instead of the Ahmanson, as the latter must accommodate a four-show subscription season, placing a cap on the length of runs there. “We were able to eke out the maximum amount of time with ‘Show Boat,’ ” Drabinsky said.

But Drabinsky said his final decision to go so quickly to the Shubert was based on what he called “an overwhelming endorsement” from national critics who saw the show in Toronto. Had the reviews not been as positive, Drabinsky said, he might have attempted to bring the show to the Ahmanson later as part of that theater’s season. Center Theatre Group artistic director-producer Gordon Davidson, who was present at the Toronto opening of “Ragtime,” said Wednesday that “it’s a wonderful piece. I would have been proud to present it. I didn’t need the reviews to tell me that.”

Drabinsky said he’s also pleased with the Shubert because he believes it’s “physically, absolutely perfect” for “Ragtime.”

Although long runs of musicals outside New York often have relied on the media spotlight focused on Broadway, Drabinsky said it isn’t necessary in this case because “a plethora of press” already covered the show in Toronto.

Writing from Toronto, Ben Brantley of the New York Times said “Ragtime” is a potential “New York crowd dazzler” with “a stunning, impeccably coordinated introduction,” but he also found the show “inordinately heavy on anthems of the oppressed” and light on individual characterizations. The show garnered favorable or at least encouraging reviews from the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today, the Associated Press and the Toronto newspapers, with additional national reviews yet to appear.

There are also “pragmatic” circumstances that govern the routing of “Ragtime,” Drabinsky said. “Beauty and the Beast” recently left the Shubert in Century City, so there was an available opening, while “it would have been tough to find one in New York had I not already been building a theater there myself.”

“Ragtime” will open at Drabinsky’s own new Broadway theater, as yet unnamed, currently being carved out of Broadway’s vintage Apollo and Lyric theaters.

Casting of the L.A. production isn’t set, but “it won’t be difficult in light of the spadework we’ve already done in L.A.,” he said. Auditions for the Toronto company were held here, and he estimated that “eight or 10" L.A. actors are performing in that company now. “There are a lot more possibilities who would have been cast if we had been sitting down for a long run in L.A.”

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