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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
RAGTIME
at the Open Air Theatre,Regents Park

RADICAL CHANGES
By SAM MARLOWE

  Rolan Bell and Claudia Kariuki/ Ph: Johan Persson

For reasons I’ve never entirely understood, this 1996 musical based on the 1975 novel by EL Doctorow has always broadly failed to find favour with the London critics. Yet this latest revival, directed by Timothy Sheader with wonderfully witty choreography by Javier de Frutos, demonstrates once again what a sinewy, hugely ambitious and intensely moving show it is.
 
Terrence McNally’s book charts a period of intense social change in American history, while Lynn Ahrens’ adroit, penetrating lyrics are an elegant counterpart to the score by Stephen Flaherty, which blends the syncopated, exuberant ragtime of the title with blues, gospel, cakewalk, vaudeville, anthemic rallying cries and big, heartfelt ballads.
 
At the centre of the maelstrom of passion and politics is a prosperous New Rochelle WASP family headed by rigid Father (David Birrell) and generous, affectionate Mother (Rosalie Craig). Their lives are thrown off axis when they collide with those of a young black couple, ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker (Rolan Bell) and his partner Sarah (Claudia Kanuki), whose efforts to build a life for themselves are devastated by racism. Mother’s Young Brother (Harry Hepple) becomes drawn to the radical politics of anarchist Emma Goldman, and Mother begins to realise how stifled she is by her constricting domestic role.
 
Also woven into the complex story are the lives of illusionist Houdini as well as Latvian artist Tateh and his little daughter, both Eastern European immigrants trying to make a kind of magic in their adopted new home; big business fatcats JP Morgan and Henry Ford; black presidential advisor Booker T Washington; and the fate of Evelyn Nesbit, a socialite-turned-show business star thanks to her involvement in a lurid scandal of sex and murder.
 
That might sound like more than enough dramatic meat for several musicals; yet Sheader and designer Jon Bausor add yet another layer. The production begins on what looks like a 21st-century rubbish tip – or perhaps a bombsite. A poster of Barack Obama proclaiming "Dare to Dream" presides over the scene, a scorched hole blasted through it; wrecked cars and household appliances are stacked in a rusting, disorderly pile. A crane towers overhead, and a replica Statue of Liberty dangles from a chain. People in sportswear or denim wander through the chaos; the first seductive strains of ragtime music emerge, crackling, from an old gramophone. As we’re plunged into the multi-strand narrative, turn-of-the-century period costumes begin to appear, but the modern clothing remains a motif throughout, consistently reminding us of the show’s continuing relevance and the way in which the thread of history continues unbroken into the present.
 
This is a show that demands attention; for all its emotional heft, it is intellectually demanding, and those looking for an evening of easy tunefulness – or those who misguidedly bring along very young children – will find it rather more challenging than anticipated. But it is precisely its scope that makes it so thrilling. Sheader’s cast sings impressively, though there could be more nuance to one or two of the performances; and his decision to cast a woman as Washington is both baffling and needlessly confusing. But Bell as Walker, Kanuki as Sarah and Tamsin Carroll as Goldman all impress. And if this idyllic theatre had any sort of roof other than the open sky, Craig’s supremely powerful Mother would rip it clean off, not just with her stunning vocals but with her sheer, full-blooded intensity. This is thrilling, gutsy musical theatre, full of anger, fervent feeling and, above all, hope.

 


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