Ragtime The Musical [Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park]

Ragtime The Musical
Music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, book by Terrence McNally, based on the novel Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow

Harry Houdini – Stephane Anelli
Little Boys – Fin Banks, Rory Fraser & Ewan Harris
Coalhouse Walker – Rolan Bell
Father – David Birrell
Mother – Rosalie Craig
Evelyn Nesbit – Katie Brayben
Little Girls – Lily Burgering, Lila Heller & Oriana Pooles
Emma Goldman – Tamsin Carroll
J. P. Morgan – Anthony Clegg
Younger Brother – Harry Hepple
Sarah – Claudia Kariuki
Willie Conklin – Joshua Lacey
Tateh – John Marquez
Booker T. Washington – Sophia Nomvete
Henry Ford – Carl Sanderson
Grandfather – Jo Servi
Ensemble: Jamal Andreas, Louise Bowden, Hayley Gallivan, Shimi Goodman, Waylon Jacobs, Kurt Kansley, Mireia Mambo-Bokele, Sandra Marvin, Corinna Powlesland, Caroline Rovina, Lucy St Louis & Tom Woods

The Band
Nigel Lilley – Musical Director

Timothy Sheader – Director
Javier de Frutos – Choreographer
Jon Bausor – Set Designer
Laura Hopkins – Costume Designer
James Farncombe – Lighting Designer
Nick Lidster – Sound Designer

Reviewed by: Tom Vallance

Reviewed: 28 May, 2012
Venue: Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, London

E. L. Doctorow’s best-selling novel, Ragtime, was published in 1975 to enormous acclaim and is frequently listed as among the one-hundred greatest English-language novels of the twentieth-century. Its inspiration came, recalled Doctorow, when he was looking at his house, which had been built in 1906, the time of a “cosier” America which had, in fact, an enormous disparity between rich and poor as well as rampant prejudice. He wanted to write about that era and, when he heard recordings of Scott Joplin’s rags played by Joshua Rifkin, he found his title. “Ragtime music was irrepressible, and a perfect metaphor for the age, when all of America was finding a new sexy rhythm. There were new ways of thinking, and demands for social justice. There were Negroes, there were immigrants, and they could not be ignored.”

Doctorow’s novel deals with three families in New York: upper-class and white living in the suburbs; a Jewish immigrant and his daughter struggling to be assimilated; and an African-American couple whose fight to survive racism ends tragically. The book’s unusual structure incorporates into the story not only famous events from the period but also many real-life characters, among them Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, Emma Goldman and Henry Ford.

Filmed in 1981 (with James Cagney as the Mayor, a character not in the musical), Ragtime was produced on Broadway in 1998. Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens won the producers over when they played four sample numbers, including the title song, a beautiful slow rag, and the equal of Joplin’s own stately compositions.

For Open Air Theatre’s new production, designer Jon Bausor has come up with a controversial element. On entering the auditorium one is confronted by a stage half-full of rubbish and clutter – stacks of broken masonry, a fridge, a car – dominated by a large, tattered poster of Barack Obama announcing the dream of a new world. Presumably symbolic, particularly since ragtime music is conveyed by the show as a cultural metaphor for the breaking of barriers and a new democracy at the start of the 20th-century, it is also remarkably ugly. Artifacts from the pile (including a miniature Statue of Liberty) are appropriated to become props; thankfully by the end of Act One most of the set has disappeared, though not without having done damage to atmosphere and staging. When Evelyn Nesbit (Katie Brayben), the showgirl who became famous when her lover, architect Stanford White, was shot by her husband, appears on Broadway, she climbs onto a swing controlled by a crane to deliver the catchy ‘Crime of the century’, but the effect is made anomalous by her raised trajectory which places her right in front of the enormous and dominating Obama portrait.

The mother’s powerfully yearning ballad, ’Back to before’ is the show’s closest thing to a hit – it has been memorably sung by Marin Mazzie and Maria Friedman – and Rosalie Craig meets its challenge with a beautifully modulated account that rises to full-throated passion.

The whole company is splendid, with notable contributions from Rolan Bell and Claudia Kanucki (as ragtime pianist Coalhouse and his wife Sarah), John Marquez as the Jewish immigrant Tateh – whose vision of success in the US comes true when he becomes one of the first film directors – Tamsin Carroll as a feisty Emma Goldman, David Birrell as the Father who struggles with his bigoted beliefs, and Harry Heppel as the Mother’s liberal brother – the confrontation between Birrell and Heppel is one of the most powerful scenes of the show. Afterwards, the small boy (the accomplished Ewan Harris) asks “Why is everyone so angry?” With more stage space in the second Act, floodlights stunningly illuminate a baseball field where choreographer Javier de Frutos gives the dancers a chance to shine with ’What a game’, closely followed with another engaging routine in which swim-suited dancers strut in ‘Atlantic City’.

  • Ragtime is in repertory at Open Air Theatre, Inner Circle, Regent’s Park, London NW1 until Saturday 8 September 2012
  • Evenings at 7.45, matinees 2.15
  • Tickets 0844 826 4242

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