Charing Cross Theatre, London
Yet again director Thom Southerland has assembled a virtually flawless cast and crew in his revival of Ragtime, a show that is probably Flaherty and Ahrens’ finest collaboration. Terrence McNally‘s book, itself drawn from E.L. Doctorow’s opus, casts a panoramic gaze over the USA at the turn of the 20th century and the communities that formed the melting pot of modern America.
Ragtime‘s narrative fills a vast canvas, though neatly focuses on three protagonists – Mother who is a fine and magnificently dignified WASP, Coalhouse Walker an African American whose gift for the piano transports him through different layers of the show’s Eastern seaboard setting and Tateh, a Jewish immigrant escaping Europe’s pogroms for the New World. Ostensibly their three lives are disparate and disconnected but it is the sequence of events and the interplay of the major figures of the time including Henry Ford, Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini that through imaginative (and to be fair, arguably improbable) chance and coincidence lead the lives of all to become interwoven.
The lead performances are sensational. Ako Mitchell‘s Coalhouse exerts a captivating presence from the get go. Powerfully voiced and with a glint in his eye, Mitchell is as inspiring as he is moving. Gary Tushaw deftly avoids cliché as he nails the charming chutzpah of Tateh, determined to advance himself and make a life for himself and his young daughter.
Anita Louise Combe simply redefines the role of Mother. In an evening of all round excellence, two of the most stunning musical moments involve Combe – her duet with Tushaw, Our Children, is exquisite, while her take on the show’s eleven o’clock number Back To Before is just spine-tingling. West End star Earl Carpenter playing Father, her husband, brings an equally mellifluous magic to his role.
Southerland’s vision remains masterful. In an actor-musician production, he creates space even amongst the full company numbers. Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher have created a set that cleverly wraps around into the old music hall’s balconies, allowing a staging that is well complemented by Howard Hudson’s carefully plotted lighting and Ewan Jones’ ingenious choreography. Jones’ routines evoke both style and period and are peppered with explosive moments of classic Vaudeville dance.
Credit too to Mark Aspinall’s orchestrations and Jordan Li-Smith’s unbelievable musical direction. At times being wheeled around the stage, Li-Smith plays the two onstage upright pianos – which in themselves form perhaps the most imaginative car ever seen on the London stage – ingeniously, as throughout he maintains a perfectly nuanced grip on the melodies being played by his cast. Actor-muso shows are a challenge to pull off well and Li-Smith just makes it look so easy.
As the Charing Cross’ Artistic Director, Ragtime marks Southerland’s second stint at the helm and it is evident that his continued and longstanding creative partnership with co-producer Danielle Tarento continues to flourish. Truly, musical theatre does not get better than this.
Runs until 10th DecemberPhoto credit: Annabel Vere & Scott Rylander