The Charing Cross Theatre stage looked crowded even as the audience was still filing in, with a number of musical instruments taking up much of the available space. The cast of Ragtime is, I daresay, kept on their toes by constraints of space, and from my vantage point, I occasionally felt uncomfortable that someone might just crash into someone else, particularly during the full ensemble numbers, of which there are several. Such fears thankfully proved unfounded, for which Ewan Jones’ choreography must take the bulk of the credit.
The use of actor-musicians is much appreciated by theatricals, who like to wax lyrical about the versatility of performers. It works well in, say Jersey Boys or Sunny Afternoon, musicals that tell the story of bands in the first place. And while it makes sense for Ako Mitchell’s Coalhouse Walker Jr to be playing the piano – the character was, after all, according to the original novel by EL Doctorow, an accomplished musician – this doesn’t extend to everyone who plays instruments in what, as I say, is an already crammed performance space. There’s a moment where a character is singing, centre stage, while simultaneously playing an accordion. At best it was distracting and at worst reminded me of those in-and-out-of-tune buskers on the London Underground.
In the first act, the set does not change sufficiently enough between scenes to distinguish one place from another properly: we are largely in non-specific every-place. The problem is compounded by the almost continuous presence of the majority of the company on stage even when the action at that moment does not directly involve the characters they play, leaving me slightly confused (having suspended disbelief at the theatre door, and set all knowledge of previous productions of Ragtime to one side) as to why all these people are in all these scenes. They clearly don’t all live in the same house, for example. The situation, I hasten to add, vastly improves in the second act, to the point where it almost becomes a different show.
This production has, both before and after the interval, skilfully re-orchestrated the show, and for people like me who have listened to the glorious original Broadway cast recording countless times, it takes some getting used to. But I do not wish to be closed-minded about the vastly reduced orchestra. With the subtler vocals of this cast taken into account, it’s clear some considerable thought has been given to how to present this musical in a small theatre. The result is a triumph, and not even the oppressively stifling heat of this below-ground venue could deter the level of curiosity and delight with which this production was received.
Earl Carpenter’s Father seems increasingly unsure of where he stands in a seemingly rapidly changing United States, and it is Mother (Anita Louise Combe) who instead shows strength of character. I found Combe surprisingly strong both in vocal delivery and in character development – I had my doubts when reading the cast announcement, but I do love being proved wrong when it’s for the better.
Perhaps the only stand-out performance in the first half came from Sarah (Jennifer Saayeng), with a strongly emotive ‘Your Daddy’s Son’. Of note in the second half were the full company’s ‘Coalhouse Demands’, delivered with verve and energy, and the closest thing this show has to what Broadway calls ‘the eleven o’clock number’, ‘Back To Before’, where Combe’s Mother demonstrates an intensity of boldness having exercised so much restraint up to that point. There’s also a convincing and admirable performance from Gary Tushaw as Tateh, who runs the full gamut of human emotion as he strives to be the best person he can be.
But the more observant of visitors to this production of Ragtime will be aware of the excising of ‘He Wanted To Say’ from the list of musical numbers, replaced by a section of spoken dialogue. I quite like the song, and on balance would have preferred it to have remained, even if in a shortened form.
I can see why this show has been revived so relatively soon after the 2012 production at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. The costumes here are so much better than the Open Air production, all in keeping with the period of the show and of the characters represented. And there are, without giving away too much, significant parallels between the tensions experienced in the show and what’s happening in our day. That we live in supposedly more sophisticated and informed times than existed at the turn of the twentieth century is a very sad indictment on today’s Western civilisation.
This is a beautiful production of a much under-rated show, and an absorbing and heartfelt musical.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Following the critically acclaimed, sell-out production of Titanic, Thom Sutherland, Artistic Director of the Charing Cross Theatre directs a new production of Ragtime, playing for a strictly limited season.
It is the turn of the 20th Century in New York. An era is exploding. A century is spinning. And the people are moving in rhythm and rhyme to the music of Ragtime. Based on the novel by E.L Doctorow, Ragtime weaves together the story of three groups in America, represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr, a Harlem musician; Mother and her white, middle-class family in New Rochelle; and Tateh, a Jewish immigrant who has come to America with his daughter seeking a new life. Their fictional lives become dramatically intertwined with one another as well as with historical figures including Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, JP Morgan and Henry Ford.
Ragtime led the 1998 Tony Awards with 12 nominations, winning 4 including Best Book by Terrence McNally and Best Original Score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.
The full cast are: Simon Anthony, Bernadette Bangura, Anthony Cable, Earl Carpenter, Anita Louise Combe, Valerie Cutko, Christopher Dickins, Nolan Frederick, Tom Giles, Joanna Hickman, Lemuel Knights, Martin Ludenbach, James Mack, Ako Mitchell, Sufia Manya, Seyi Omooba, Jess Ryan, Kate Robson-Stuart, Jennifer Saayeng, Jonathan Stewart, Gary Tushaw, and child actors Alana Hinge, Samuel Peterson, Ethan Quinn, Riya Vyas.
Director: Thom Southerland
Orchestrator and Musical Supervisor: Mark Aspinall
Choreographer: Ewan Jones
Set Designers: Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher
Lighting Designer: Howard Hudson
Sound Designer: Andrew Johnson
Costume Designer: Jonathan Lipman
Musical Director: Jordan Li-Smith
Casting Director: Danielle Tarento
Producers: Danielle Tarento, Steven M. Levy, Sean Sweeney, Vaughan Williams
Saturday 8 October – Saturday 10 December
Press night Monday 17 October at 7.30pm
Charing Cross Theatre
London WC2N 6NL