Lovingly spoofed in Forbidden Broadway, the long-running series of satirical lyrics, Ragtime The Musical does indeed have a “plot so complicated” that I do wonder if those seeing it for the first time in this short run at the Bishopsgate Institute would be able to take it all in, given that it is presented here in concert format. But this engaging and passionate rendering will, I think, lead some of those in the audience to read up on the show, and I for one, having revisited Ragtime thanks to this production, intend to follow the footsteps of the some of the cast and read the book by EL Doctorow on which the musical is based.
The Great Hall of the Bishopsgate Institute produces an echo, even in a relatively full house, and although this is outweighed by the benefit of having a 22-piece orchestra conducted by Ben Ferguson and a suitably large cast, some of the more rapidly spoken lines were somewhat lost. This does not, in some musicals, matter too much, particularly when the plot is light: here, there’s so much revealed in the prologue alone that without every piece of that background information, the rest can, in parts, be rather difficult to follow.
The audience surrounds the stage, which is a catwalk structure that juts out like a seaside pier. Imagine the centre aisle of a church nave being used as a stage with the audience seated on either side. The cast do a good job to provide a decent viewing angle of proceedings from wherever one is seated, without dizzying everyone by spinning around with every other line. The orchestra is large enough to take up the entire space of what would otherwise be the stage, had a more traditional staging been adopted, and, despite their evident skills, occasionally drown out the odd lyric or two.
The costumes, I must say, are excellent, very appropriate to the setting and period of the show – on that point this amateur (by which I mean ‘unpaid’ rather than ‘non-professional’ or sub-standard) production surpasses the 2012 production at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. There is a valiant attempt at scenery and creating set – a Model T Ford on stage is particularly imaginative. And, as always, the scene-setting is very thorough and comprehensive in the first act, as the audience is introduced to a diverse range of characters. These include business tycoon JP Morgan (Stephen Hewitt), the entertainer Evelyn Nesbit (Siobhan Aarons) and the revolutionary Emma Goldman (Tal Hewitt). The latter is of particular interest to the Bishopsgate Institute as its archive includes some of the real Goldman’s campaign materials and literature, as I discovered in the interval (the library doubles up as the bar).
It can be like watching a tennis match whenever characters belt out numbers from opposite ends of the long and narrow stage – this did not, I hasten to add, happen very often. I would also question how American some of these characters’ American accents are; I nearly burst out laughing when the cast as one sung the lyric “Coalhouse demands” as ‘Coalhouse de-mahrnds’ (as opposed to ‘de-mehnds’). A lot of the themes explored in the show continue to resonate today. With the untimely and unnecessary death of Jo Cox MP in the forefront of the audience’s minds, the shooting of Sarah (Sara Rajeswaran) rang uncomfortably close to home. There are reservations from the central family’s Father (Michael Smith) about mass immigration, and a look at the impact of technological advances on society, plus the difficulties inherent in coming to terms with significant change. And so on, and so forth.
The large number of periphery characters in Ragtime The Musical is covered with several flurries of blind casting. The company itself is supplemented by a “static ensemble”, and when the full company, choir (I simply can’t take the term ‘static ensemble’ seriously, and I must insist on calling a choir a choir) and orchestra are at full volume it’s very uplifting and hair-raising.
Of the many performers, I was impressed with Philip Doyle’s Tateh, conveying the full gamut of human emotion in a character fortunate enough to realise his American dream. Chris Hughes-Copping clearly had fun as Edgar, a grown man playing the part of a remarkably confident and perceptive little boy. It’s Mother (Trudi Camilleri) who steals the show for me in this production, with one of those angelic voices I could listen to all night. It’s comparable to Maria Friedman’s compelling – and Olivier Award-winning – performance in the 2003 production that played at the Piccadilly Theatre.
Okay, I’ll admit, it’s a little preachy. But it’s a good beginning to what is, according to the Bishopsgate Institute’s plans, the first of many forays into musicals and drama. While the original Broadway cast recording is one I listen to fairly often, it was certainly a pleasure to listen to the glorious music performed live. Even if justice was denied to some of its characters, an energetic cast and orchestra more than do justice to the book, music and lyrics of Ragtime The Musial in this moving and dynamic piece of theatre.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Ragtime – The Musical
Music by: Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by: Lynn Ahrens
Book by: Terrence McNally
Based on: the novel by E L Doctorow
Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 4QH
14 – 19 June 2016 Tuesday 14 – Saturday 18 June, 7.30pm. Matinee
Sun 19 June at 2.00pm.
Tickets: Available at www.bishopsgate.org.uk
on 020 7392 9200 or in person at Bishopsgate Institute.