Theatre: Here's a couple of things to make a song and dance about

Two major new musicals are brewing on Broadway: Paul Simon's 'The Capeman' and Stephen Flaherty's 'Ragtime'. The one has been honed to perfection in out-of-town runs, the other is going through its birth-pangs in full public view. Phil Johnson has seen them both.

When, at the St Lucia Jazz Festival in May 1995, I interviewed the Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott about his collaboration on a new musical with singer-songwriter Paul Simon, Walcott said the piece was nearly finished and that he expected a production to begin the following year, "maybe on Broadway". Now, better late than never, The Capeman has finally hit Times Square, where I paid my $67 to see it in preview last week. When the postponed opening night does eventually arrive - it's currently set for the end of the month - it's more than likely that the big critical guns will come looking for Simon, anxious to settle accounts in what could be a real bun-fight at the Broadway Corral, for as of now there's a lot wrong with the show.

If Simon rather than Walcott is the target, this is because the poet's contribution is almost impossible to pinpoint. Although Walcott is credited with co-authorship of book and lyrics, Simon's fingerprints cover just about everything in the show. All the singers, to varying degrees, even sound like Paul Simon, with the songs sharing the same trademark long metre familiar from Simon's previous work as a lyricist, while his own lilting, sweet-voiced vocal delivery is echoed by many of the performers. Some of the songs also sound uncannily familiar on a first hearing.

Typically, as a new number begins, one starts tapping one's toes to the rhythm of, say, "Diamonds On The Soles of My Shoes", only to find that the song turns out to be something else entirely. And the songs are just about the best thing about The Capeman. You can't help feeling that, if only Derek Walcott, who has worked with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop - a kind of Caribbean equivalent to Brecht's Berliner Ensemble - for 40 years or so, had been more involved, The Capeman would have been tighter than it is.

But, if the show at present is full of holes, it somehow remains an intermittently compelling and ultimately moving work, largely on the strength of Simon's songs, Bob Crowley's occasionally inspired designs, and the bruised nobility of Ruben Blades's performance as "The Capeman" himself (or rather as "The elder Capeman", for there are two versions, another actor playing the younger one). And if the big guns do come to shoot Simon down, it's as well to remember that they are unlikely to have much regard for either Latin music, doo-wop vocal groups of the Fifties, or the figure of Blades himself - a salsa singer and musician of huge importance in his field, as well as a movie actor and, back in 1994, a candidate for the Presidency of Panama.

This is important, for when The Capeman is good, it is very good indeed. The scene where the hero stands on a fire escape amidst Crowley's breathtaking tenement set, smoking a cigarette and singing the gorgeous doo-wop number "Satin Summer Nights", to the accompaniment of a street-corner harmony group on the ground below, is wonderful by any standards.

It's doubly wonderful when one considers that the music in most musicals appears to belong to a hermetically sealed world cut off from any real connection to developments in popular song over the past 30 years or more. This makes The Capeman seem, for Broadway at least, almost revolutionary, for if the music of the block-buster musical has become its own genre, with its own specific modes - alternately bombastic, sentimentally cloying or simply dripping wet - Simon's songs at least seem like the real thing. They're proper songs, even if they do all sound as if Simon himself is singing them, and those familiar long lines, bejewelled with poetic imagery, are as close to blank verse as a new Broadway show without Al Pacino and a hump is likely to get.

But the real problems faced by The Capeman rest primarily with the story itself, and also with the director Mark Morris's evident difficulty (hard to believe of a MacArthur Prize-winning choreographer) in moving his actors convincingly around the stage.

The story itself is taken from real life: Salvador Agron was a Puerto Rican teenager who killed two white youths in a gang fight in New York in 1959, and was labelled "The Capeman" by the press because of the costume he wore as part of his gang allegiance. Sentenced to death, his execution is forestalled by Governor Rockefeller, and he goes to prison, where he learns to read and eventually becomes a writer (although what he actually writes remains, at least in the show, rather unclear). In prison he has a passionate platonic relationship with an Indian woman penfriend in Arizona, and faces racist abuse from a redneck guard. After his release in 1979, and reunited at last with his grieving mother, he dies of a heart attack in her apartment.

This slender structure is made to carry an almost unbearable weight of mythic significance. In the show, Agron is a Christ figure, and his rites of passage - from childhood in Puerto Rico, to youth in the housing projects of New York, to prison and then out again - are a kind of pilgrim's progress, with the mystical figure of Lazarus (played and sung quite brilliantly by ex-doo-wop singer Nestor Sanchez) looking over his shoulder from step to step along the way. As the older Agron, Ruben Blades shadows his younger self (played by Marc Anthony) through the early stages of the narrative, wailing insouciantly by his side as he is drawn into the gang, as he commits the crime, and as he waits out the first prison years. Strolling benignly through the action, under-playing his role with great sensitivity and singing like a dream, Blades is superb.

Crowley's designs are fittingly dazzling, and make wonderful use of video projections in which documentary photographs and newsreel footage of the real Agron (who comes across as genuinely charismatic) are made to interact with the boldly expressionist sets. The island of Puerto Rico is represented by a luminous green model of voluptuous curves; Arizona is an impossibly bright confection of rolling desert landscape. But, given the holes in the story itself, the drop-dead gorgeousness of the design begins to have a reductive effect. As another fitted kitchen comes sliding obediently out of the wings to represent the mother's apartment, and another deliciously skewed perspective rendering of a tenement stairwell fits into the backdrop, one grows less and less astonished by the scenic ingenuity. Ironically, it's only at the end, when curtain calls are taken against a grey and empty stage, that one really notices the actors. A low-budget workshop production, with 12 actors and a bare stage, might be The Capeman's natural habitat.

While one would expect the dance scenes, the Puerto Rican street festivals and carnivals, to be bold and beautiful, they don't supply the riot of colour and movement that you think they will. Crowd scenes - and there's a cast of 48 or so - seem fuzzy and out of focus, and some sets seem to outstay their welcome (this is most apparent in the prison scenes) because so little appears to be going on in them. Of all the usual suspects, director Mark Morris seems the most culpable. Nevertheless, by the end, you're partly won over, by the seeming naivety of the close as much as anything. Ruben Blades, increasingly disenchanted after his release from prison, and more and more hangdog of expression, goes back to his mother's apartment, switches on the television, and then dies. There's no big musical number, no moving death aria, no final dance-action. He just snuffs it, quietly in his sleep. And then you cry.

By contrast, Ragtime - and the contrast is unfair, because Ragtime is great on its own terms - has had the good sense to get its teething troubles out of the way long before its Broadway previews and official opening last night. It was first workshopped and performed in Toronto, then given again in Los Angeles. So confident are its producers of their show's success that they have built a new theatre especially to house it (to be accurate, they have re-built two theatres, the Lyric and the Apollo, into one new one, the Ford Center for the Performing Arts) and a very long run must be anticipated.

An adaptation of EL Doctorow's famous novel, with a book by Terrence McNally (author of such plays as Masterclass and The Lisbon Traviata), music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Ragtime works like clockwork, ticking along as surely as the model train that runs across the stage in one of this show's many remarkable set-pieces (The Capeman boasts the same effect, only with a Greyhound bus).

Ragtime is a knockout from the moment you take your seat, thanks to Eugene Lee's monumental set, based on the now-demolished concourse of Penn Street Station, which was itself built by the architect Stanford White, who figures briefly in the story (and who was played eccentrically by Norman Mailer in Milos Forman's film version of the novel).

From the brilliantly realised plot (itself more Brechtian than that of The Capeman, where Brecht is needed so much more badly), to the stunning performances by a large group of principal actors, Ragtime is a hit from the off. Only the music is perhaps less inventive than it could be, although it's fine if you accept the governing norms of the present-day genre. But what impresses more than anything is the expert, Napoleon-like marshalling of the large-scale cast. From the very beginning - in a masterly series of tableaux - the actors are made to fit the dictates of the stage picture with unerring grace and skill, and the show unfolds through a succession of bold ensemble pieces more than equal to the epic structure of the novel.

Much, obviously, has been sacrificed from Doctorow's wealth of incidental detail, but Ragtime: The Musical succeeds in both visualising the progress of history itself, and creating a meaningful mini-narrative around each of the central characters. History is made to live through the framing figures of Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman, Booker T Washington and Henry Ford, who all intersect with the fictional lives of a middle- class Anglo family, a Jewish immigrant and his daughter, and Coalhouse Walker, the black ragtime pianist whose thwarted search for justice leads him to become a fire-raising anarchist.

It's difficult to emphasise just how well this mix of the personal and the political is made to work within the confines of what is, after all, a kind of gung-ho popular entertainment, but McNally, choreographer Graciela Daniele and director Frank Galati manage it wonderfully. It's really only in the final stages that history is left behind and a thick dollop of syrup takes its place.

The performances are, perhaps, generic Broadway star performances - all of the principals are given a party-piece to get their teeth into, but Marin Mazzie as the Mother, Audra McDonald as Sarah, mother of Walker's child, and above all, Brian Stokes Mit-chell as Walker himself, are superb.

Compared to The Capeman, Ragtime might seem an archetypally old-fashioned, well-crafted Broadway-box of a play, but it's really much more than this. The level of craft involved is sufficient to make Ragtime work on almost any level, with almost any audience. It will be around for a long time yet - and is due to reach London in September. The future of The Capeman looks less certain.

'Ragtime' is at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, 213 W 42nd Street. 'Capeman' is at the Marquis Theater, on Broadway at 45th. Both are booking on: 001 212 307 4100

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