Those who know me and my theatregoing habits will know that I’m a sucker for revivals of musicals and will always find space in my stagey diary for them. You’ll also know if you are an occasional or regular avid reader of my theatrical musings, that I’m trying to make a conscious effort to see more shows that are new to me. So, what better way to combine both with a trip to the Charing Cross Theatre for Ragtime, part of Thom Southerland’s new season as artistic director there.
Based on E.L Doctorow’s 1975 novel of the same name, the musical weaves together the stories of three different groups living in America in at the turn of the 20th century, where the world is spinning and a new distant music can be heard on the horizon. We have the White upper class suburban family, here known simply as Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother, Grandfather and The Little Boy (or Edgar), the African American community represented by Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr, and Eastern European Immigrants, represented by Tateh and his daughter, who travel to America in search of a better life from Latvia. Their stories not only overlap at times, but we also meet some prominent historical figures from the time, such as Booker T Washington, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Houdini.
Personally, I lean towards musicals that challenge me to think deeply about life and deal with powerful issues, and Ragtime has that quality in spades: politics, racism, the meaning of family, poverty, injustice, and acceptance are all explored and confronted, and it struck me deeply how the piece still feels chillingly relevant today. Couple that with an utterly delicious score by Stephen Flaherty (and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens), and I think it’s fair to say that Tom and his company and creative team are onto a sure-fire winner.
I’m consistently amazed of late by the magic that can be created by small casts in intimate spaces, and here we have no exception: a cast of 24, many of whom are actor- musicians pack the teeny Charing Cross stage (and indeed at one point, the aisles!) with an energy and enthusiasm that is infectious, a sound that is almighty and nothing short of a delight; I started getting chills down my spine from the Prologue and they would return periodically throughout the evening; a testament to the fact I felt instantly connected to this music and its ability to shape and drive the narrative. Credit, too, to Musical Director maestro Jordan Li- Smith for his assured leadership: a cast of polished, infinitely engaging actor musos is always a treat for the ears as well as the eyes, but to achieve this having memorised all the music, and playing a piano that spends a good part of the show spinning? Massively impressive. Tom Rodgers and Toots Butcher’s set is a two-storey multitasking marvel: the piano morphs into a Ford Model T, and we go from country house to deck of a ship with a spin of a balustrade. The cast climb and perch wherever they need to be, pianos turn into soap boxes and so on; and this often gives some of the show’s emotional moments a new depth. Choreography by Ewan Jones is slick and smart, again a masterclass in how to utilise the intimate space with the size of cast you have.
I think this production boasts one of the strongest ensembles it has been my privilege to watch. They are led by Anita Louise Combe as Mother whose performance radiates warmth, grace and sensitivity; her vocal soars, and her rendition of Back to Before was one of my personal highlights of the entire evening! Where Mother represents everything that is progressive, tolerant, courageous and infinitely compassionate we have her antithesis in Father, who often comes across as cold and emotionless. I spent the entire show in a bit of a quandary; I felt Father wasn’t always a particularly likeable character, but I think he’s just set in his ways and struggles to articulate his feelings, and is actually one of the characters I found myself empathising with most. This production is the third opportunity I have had to see Earl Carpenter perform (the others being Phantom of The Opera & Les Misérables on Broadway) and he continues to astound me, he’s one of those performer’s I think is a master of making the subtlest and smallest of nuances say so much, and I got a simple sense of pure joy just hearing him sing again.
Gary Tushaw was, in my mind a marvel as Tateh. I had not seen him perform prior to this, and I hope it won’t be my only opportunity; his energy and passion is relentless, and Tateh’s journey throughout the show fills me with such joy, his dogged determination and love for his daughter is enchanting. He has a duet with Mother, Our Children that is particularly exquisite; Tushaw’s and Combe’s voices a delighful, rich blend that warmed my heart.
Ako Mitchell and Jennifer Saayeng shine as Coalhouse and Sarah; their chemistry sizzles and together and apart, they have some of the show’s most powerful, affecting moments. Coalhouse turns vigilante after Sarah is killed, and to watch Ako go through that emotional transition as an actor as Coalhouse’s spirit is broken and he is angry at the world is truly something, it felt so raw and honest and my heart broke.
Ragtime is one of those scores and shows that took me through every conceivable emotion, and touched a nerve in the way it reminded of how far we’ve left to go as a society. That said, it boasts a tremendous spirit and optimism that I was charmed by, and all the cast are phenomenal; I’d urge everybody to get a ticket if you can so you can see this Tony award winner brought thrillingly back to life!
Ragtime is running at Charing Cross Theatre until December 10th. For details and to book: http://charingcrosstheatre.co.uk/theatre/ragtime