Following on from his production of Titanic the Musical, director Thom Southerland makes a bold attempt at putting Ragtime on the small stage of the Charing Cross Theatre. This is a musical seething with characters and Southerland has the whole cast on stage at the same time for much of the show. Although the stage is overcrowded, the 24 actors are particularly gifted in that they supply all the music, playing instruments and singing! The musical is based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow. The show really chimes in well with today’s America – dealing directly with racism, immigration and poverty in the run-up to a divisive US election in which race relations are an important element.
The beginning of the twentieth century sees a wave of immigrants arriving in America. The particular sound of ragtime music forms the background to the piece to illustrate the different types of people coming together. We look closely at three groups of people in New York. A white upper middle-class WASP* family in New Rochelle. The Mother takes responsibility for an abandoned black baby (who turns out to be the son of Sarah – who we meet later). A Latvian Jewish immigrant called Tateh, who, after the death of his wife, has come to America to seek a better life for his daughter; he has an entrepreneurial streak and later becomes a movie maker. We meet Coalhouse Walker Jr, a black musician from Harlem, who changes from a happy family man to a politically charged avenger following the shooting of his wife. The piece also includes historical, well-known figures including Harry Houdini, JP Morgan, Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington and the anarchist Emma Goodman.
In spite of the intricately devised set which has raised platforms and steps to depict the prow of a ship, slum tenements and the streets of New York, the large cast often have to move deftly to avoid bumping into each other. Sometimes the music intrudes so that it is difficult to hear the dialogue. Anita Louise Combe is impressive as Mother and Ako Mitchell as Coalhouse. Ako deserves credit for successfully showing layers of his character which create depth and truth. Jennifer Saayeng as his wife Sarah and Gary Tushaw as the single Jewish father act and sing with conviction. There is a lovely little cameo from Joanna Hickman as the showgirl Evelyn Nesbitt. Hickman also plays the cello with great feeling.
The score by Stephen Flaherty has some gorgeous tunes which are played and sung movingly by the cast. There is little room for choreography – it is more like drilled movement which is rigorously controlled by director Southerland, who makes sure that all the actors are correctly attired in the period. The intimate theatre provides an emotional experience where the music segues into the acting and the talented cast inhabit not only the people they are portraying but also the music they are playing.
Review by Carlie Newman.
Playing until 10th December 2016. We have tickets for £42.
*WASP – White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) is an informal, sometimes disparaging term for a group of high-status and influential White Americans of English Protestant ancestry. The term applies to a group who control disproportionate financial, political and social power in the United