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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
RAGTIME
at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

BUMPS ALONG THE ROAD
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Rolan Bell and Claudia Kariuki/ Ph: Johan Persson

E.L. Doctorow's  bestselling novel "Ragtime," whose prose successfully duplicated the syncopated rhythms of a Scott Joplin rag, was also an ode to America at the turn of the 20th century.
 
It was a gilded age dominated by 400 of the wealthiest most socially acceptable people in the country – including scions of industry such as J.P. Morgan, the fabulously wealthy Vanderbilts and Astors, Henry Ford, and Carnegie.
 
Colorful celebrities such as escapist Harry Houdini, showgirl Evelyn Nesbitt, the revolutionary Emma Goldman (Tamsin Carroll) and architect Stanford White (who was murdered by Nesbitt’s jealous suitor Harry Thaw in what became known as the crime of the century) were juxtaposed by the thousands of anonymous, indigent immigrants who daily passed through Ellis Island in search of the American dream.
 
But it was racial inequality that was author Doctorow’s trump card, here represented by black musician/composer Coalhouse Walker (Rolan Bell), his abandoned wife (Louise Bowden) and their newborn baby.
 
Unfortunately, what worked so seamlessly on the page is rather clunky on stage, the main problem being the number of different characters whose stories are forever bumping into each other. It is only in the second half, when the narrative focuses on Coalhouse Walker and the racial injustice he is forced to fight, that Terrence McNally’s sprawling book begins to engage the audience. But it’s too little too late, and much of the long evening passes by in a haze of boredom.
 
The songs by Steven Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) begin well enough with the catchy title number, and there is a pretty ballad called "Wheels of a Dream," but it wasn’t a vintage score when Broadway first heard it in 1998, and age hasn’t improved it.
 
Nor does director Timothy Sheader help matters by framing the action in designer John Bausor’s modern junkyard setting dominated by an Obama poster. Unhelpful, too, is some color-blind casting that makes no sense at all in a show that relies so heavily on the race card. I was also baffled by the casting of a woman in the role of Booker T. Washington. Why?
 
On the plus side, Sheader’s use of a large and very dominant industrial crane pays dividends in a stunt that allows us to see Houdini (Stephane Anelli) perform one of his famous escapes, and it is equally effective in showing us Evelyn Nesbitt (Kate Brayben) in her famous on-stage swing.
 
There are also good performances from Rosalie Craig as an altruist who takes in Coalhouse’s wife and child; and John Marquez as Tateh, a middle-European immigrant who grasps the opportunity to become a successful Hollywood movie mogul.
 
But it’s heavy going just the same.

 


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