Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 10 December 2016
In The Boys in the Band currently selling out the Park Theatre, Ian Hallard as Michael sings “any way you figure, it’s hard to be a nigger – but it’s better than being a jew”. There in one cheeky drunken lyric is the essence also of Ragtime.
In three coarsely plaited stories, middle class strivers, Harlem blacks and Jewish migrants from Lithuania share the small successes and many failures of making their way in America at the dawn of the twentieth century. Discrimination scents the air of every street corner, and only the bravery of the ‘new music’ of ragtime counterpoints the sadness.
It is hard to envision a more superbly and sympathetically staged production than this by Thom Southerland: acting, singing, dancing, choreography, and Howard Hudson’s slick and characterful lighting outrank anything currently in Shaftesbury Avenue. A dozen of his excellent cast of triple threats also play the entire score as actor-musicians seamlessly blended into the action: I have never seen this done better.
In a word, it is faultless.
Southerland has visited this same magic on forgotten gems like Titanic and Allegro, but Ragtime is not a ‘forgotten’ musical – it’s only four years since Tim Sheader staged it in the shadow of Obama’s second-term election on a rubbish dump at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and following a kill-for-a-ticket flag-waving invitation-only concert last August, there’s a scheme to fully stage it in 2017 in the immigration hall at Ellis Island. Probably with President Trumpleclinton at opening night.
But it’s the weight and worthiness of the content that makes Ragtime not just an epic production, but also a marathon for the audience. E L Doctorow’s massive, semi-autobiographical novel is rammed with characters and situation, the ‘huddled masses’ are contrasted with subplots involving politicians and financiers like J P Morgan, Booker T Washington and Henry Ford. The novel contains a scene with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung on a roller coaster in Coney Island – it must have taken a rare moment of restraint for Terrence McNally to omit that.
Stephen Flaherty’s score draws cleverly and powerfully on the Scott Joplin era, and is truly deserving of a place in the musical theatre canon even though at 31 numbers it’s twice as long as most Rodgers and Hammerstein. But the book hammers home the messages of tolerance with relentless sugary blows. Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics are often so prissily worthy they might have been freshly minted by some social justice warrior in the Guardian’s comments columns, and the show serves up anthem after anthem after anthem – you think the first act has come to a climax three separate times.
I never really liked Earl Carpenter as Phantom, but boy has he come into his own as Father – his singing so beautifully measured, and there are outstanding performances from Anita Louise Combe as Mother, Ako Mitchell as an impeccable Coalhouse Walker, Seyi Oomba rocking the house with her bluesy improvisations, and Valerie Cutko doing her usual excellent bit for the revolution as the anarchist Emma Goldman.
It was rather sweet to see Alana Hinge from The Secret Garden as ‘little girl’, daughter of the Lithuanian immigrant Tateh who after enduring much hardship finds fame as a film maker.
In real life, ‘little girl’ became a stripper. God bless America.
until 10 December.
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