EL Doctorow’s Ragtime may be more than 40 years old – and the musical version is celebrating its 21st – but its story is startlingly prescient for today when the world is questioning, protesting and fighting against mass immigration of the poor and destitute.
As a performance piece for today’s stage it hammers its politics to the mast, showcases the appalling prejudice and bigotry of a country which at one time opened its arms to the world, and condemns its ruling classes for their callous disregard of the down-trodden.
London’s hottest theatre team, producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland, moved into Charing Cross Theatre this summer for a season of musicals which they kicked off with the only return run Titanic ever got before launching this glistening gem.
Ragtime dazzles from its slickly-choreographed 12-minute opening, to its powerhouse heart, and its gut-wrenching finale. Southerland’s storytelling is masterly, aided and abetted by a talented ensemble of actor musicians, Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher’s brilliantly designed set, and Terrence McNally’s sweeping tale.
This is a hugely ambitious musical, not least because you have a cast of 24, most with instruments, squeezed onto a ridiculously small stage, decked out with a magnificent two-storey set and its syncopated musical numbers competing with the rumble of the Northern line at the back of the stage.
I kept imagining this on a big West End stage with a full orchestra in the pit to free up the actors. Given the space it would look even more impressive.
But you go with the hand you’re dealt with – and Southerland capitalises on the talents of his superb cast. He has a Phantom – Earl Carpenter; the sensational West end musical theatre star Anita Louise Combe; striking Valerie Cutko, who is always worth watching; The Color Purple’s Jennifer Saayeng; Sunset Boulevard’s Gary Tushaw and company regular, Ako Mitchell who is finally being allowed to flex his muscles as pianist and chief protagonist Coalhouse Walker Jnr.
Way down the cast list is little known newcomer Seyi Omooba who blows the roof off the theatre with a sensational, deeply moving and emotional Till We Reach That Day which closes the first act.
And that’s the thing with Tarento and Southerland. They have an uncanny knack of finding the most incredible talent. There isn’t a weak performance from any of the two dozen they have recruited. Even the young boys in the show (the engaging Samuel Peterson, on the night I saw it, but sharing the role with Ethan Quinn) are rising stars.
Ragtime does have its flaws, to be sure. It’s not a sung-through production, but often feels like it, with more than 30 songs running almost back to back. At times the story becomes a little cliched. This tale of dirt poor immigrants who make good has become overworked as has the race card.
Here we hear the “N-word” spat out by racist characters, while moderates use the very modern – and very American – phrase “a person of colour.” Neither sit comfortably.
The epic, three-strand story of the American Dream that is set at the start of the 20th century, sometimes feels too complex for one musical and possibly more suited to an HBO TV mini-series.
But you can’t help but admire Southerland’s considerable flair in knitting it all together. His fluid storytelling never falters for an instant.
The opening number, Ragtime, slickly introduces the key players – well-to-do factory owner Father and his family; the show’s black underclass; and Latvian emigres Tateh and his daughter. Each group moves to the fore as two piano players occupy centre stage knocking out the toe-tapping music that runs through the entire show.
You immediately look to Carpenter’s rather dour but upright Father as the show’s guiding light but it soon becomes clear that is not the case.
His stiff awkwardness around people of lower classes soon mark him out as an old school snob who is unable to accept any sort of integration of equality.
His charitable wife takes in a black baby she found abandoned in her flower bed (well you would, wouldn’t you?) and he becomes incandescent when the mother, Sarah (Saayeng), turns up and his wife gives her refuge too.
When Coalhouse appears, looking for Sarah, it proves a catalyst to a string of incidents that ultimately lead to tragedy.
But while the ghosts of America’s civil unrest play in the background we follow the fortunes of Tateh who arrives with nothing but an ability to cut out paper silhouettes. Will America be the land of promise and success or a dream gone sour?
I was enthralled by Ragtime. It’s an ever moving visual spectacle that offers up so much to see and hear that I’m tempted to make a return visit. This is definitely a show to watch more than once.
It is, after all, hard to forget big production numbers like The Gettin’ Ready Rag and What A Game!, Saayeng’s emotional Your Daddy’s Son, or her poignant duets with Mitchell in The Wheels of A Dream and Sarah Brown Eyes.
Then there is Anita Louise Combe’s soaring voice, as Mother, stunning the audience with Back To Before, Ako Mitchell’s deft piano playing and powerful performance as a wronged man, Gary Tushaw’s compelling turn as Tateh and little Seyi Omooba singing her heart out.
Ragtime is playing at Charing Cross Theatre until December 10.
Powerful, poignant and wonderfully told. Ragtime pulls on the heartstrings with a story of immigration and the American Dream. Enthralling.