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The Theatreguide.London Review

Ragtime
Charing Cross Theatre   Autumn 2016

The best American musical of the 1990s shows off all its strengths and virtues in a revival that affirms Thom Southerland's growing reputation as a skilled and imaginative director of modestly-scaled musicals. 

This show, with book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, is based on E.L. Doctorow's award-winning novel, and actually improves on the original in significant ways. 

Doctorow followed three tangentially related groups of characters through the early years of the Twentieth Century. 

A well-off white family (identified only as Father, Mother, etc.) live in cushioned suburbia. Tateh, a Latvian immigrant, searches for the American Dream. And Coalhouse Walker, a proud black musician, reacts to racist insults with mounting violence. 

Doctorow's problems were structural. Tateh's plot line was underdeveloped, while the Coalhouse story (itself openly borrowed from an old German folktale) took over the second half of the novel, unbalancing it. Meanwhile, a number of historical figures were awkwardly inserted into the stories. 

Terrence McNally resolves these problems skilfully by developing Mother's growing awareness of her strength and independence into the real backbone of the musical, reducing the Coalhouse story's dominance. Tateh is also built up, and the historical figures clearly defined as symbolic and choric. 

Composer Stephen Flaherty learned from Lloyd Webber the power of building a whole show on two or three melodies, which differing tempos and Lynn Ahrens' evocative lyrics can turn into separate songs while still retaining a continuous tone and feel to the show. 

And the result is exactly what Doctorow was aiming for, an evocation of an era. The start of the last century and the parallel awakenings of three seemingly separate pieces of America become a story of enormous changes that can perhaps only be appreciated when filtered through myth and nostalgia. 

And it's an enjoyable, bouncy musical. 

The central melody, a syncopated ragtime tune, can be joyous or haunting in turn, and is surrounded by other songs ranging from brief fragments to fully developed arias, so that there are thirty separate songs listed in the programme. 

(One of my favourite numbers, He Wanted To Say, has been cut, a real loss. If something had to go, the entertaining but irrelevant baseball number would not have been missed.) 

In staging this epic director Thom Southerland adopts the now-almost-standard device for small productions of having the cast double as orchestra, carrying their instruments onstage and playing when not in, and sometimes when in character. 

The cleverness of the conceit adds to the fun of the show, as when Joanna Hickman as Evelyn Nesbitt (one of the historical figures) sings her deliberately insipid little song while toting her cello around. 

It also, unfortunately, adds to the occasional sense of clutter as 24 actors overfill the small Charing Cross stage, trying earnestly to stay out of each other's way and sometimes making it difficult to find the key figures. 

The unquestioned star of this production is Anita Louise Combe as Mother, beautifully acting and singing the woman's fear and excitement as she discovers her own power. 

It is Combe's [We Can Never Go] Back To Before that is the show's musical climax, rather than Ako Mitchell's Make Them Hear You as Coalhouse. 

While Mitchell has the right power and dignity for Coalhouse, his voice is not quite up to the demands of his strongest songs. Little is asked musically of Tateh, and Gary Tushaw's contribution is a believable and attractive warmth. 

Choreographer Ewan Jones doesn't get the opening number quite right clutter again but redeems himself with a delightful and energetic Gettin' Ready Rag and a strutting cakewalk for Atlantic City. 

Ragtime is a truly great musical. A few minor cavils aside, this is an inventive production that brings out all its power and adds its own charming extra touches. There is really not much more you could ask for.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Ragtime - Charing Cross Theatre 2016



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