Ragtime continues at the Charing Cross Theatre, London until Saturday 10 December.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Director Thom Southerland has something of a reputation for tackling epic shows in intimate settings (Titanic, for one) – shifting the focus away from grand theatrical gestures and placing the focus on storytelling and what makes the characters tick.
It’s an approach that combines simplicity and innovation, allowing a staggeringly talented cast and creative team (such as there is here) to really get their teeth into the material.
To apply this formula to the complex tale of what happens to three American families – black, Jewish and WASP – and how their lives intertwine in the early 20th century, is ambitious to say the least. And yet I wonder whether Terrence McNally’s libretto (based on EL Doctorow’s 1975 novel) and Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ classic score have ever been presented with more love, passion and skill as it is here.
The employment of actor-musicians can be a novelty, but it is key to the success of this production, and becomes a core ingredient in a drama where the burgeoning music of an era is integral to the story being told.
The sheer quality of the accompaniment is impressive enough, but an added bonus is how the artists have the freedom to enhance their characterisations via the music they play: an example being how Joanna Hickman, as Evelyn Nesbitt, incorporates the cello in her act (even producing a recorder from her blouse at one point), or when percussion is a channel for frustration and anger.
All of this signals the overwhelming talent of the 24-strong ensemble, many of the artists proving themselves quadruple threats: actors, singers, dancers and musicians, none of them needing to refer to one printed note of music throughout an intensely emotional two and an half hour show.
From the opening sequence, one of the best ever created in the genre, the sound of the orchestra comes in waves over the footlights and envelops us in an intensely emotional soundscape (congrats go to orchestrator Mark Aspinall and musical director Jordan Li-Smith).
At the heart of a relatively minimal set (some of which owes its origins to the previous staging of Titanic at the theatre), beautifully and atmospherically lit by Howard Hudson, there are two upright pianos that play a vital part in the action. These instruments, moved around the stage to create all kinds of scenarios (including a sprinkling of lighter musical segments nicely choreographed by Ewan Jones), become essential to the intimate and fluid staging.
Casting director Danielle Tarento has worked her magic once again and and the lead players are outstanding across the board. While an audience is always likely to rail against Father’s prejudices, Earl Carpenter brings a sensitivity to a character who cannot deal with the rapid changes taking place in the world around him.
As Mother, Anita Louise Combe is inspiring in the way she demonstrates gentleness, warmth and strength, providing one of the evening’s highlights in the tour de force number, ‘Back to Before’ (although this is one moment in the show when I would have welcomed a stillness to the direction, with the actor-musicians a little less central to the scene).
Combe brings the same qualities to her friendship with immigrant Tateh, a bravura performance from Gary Tushaw as he overcomes the struggles of poverty to finally discover his version of the American dream. The raw emotion displayed by Tushaw in Act I is particularly memorable.
Perhaps most moving of all, though, is the tragic story of Sarah (Jennifer Saayeng) and Coalhouse Walker Jr (Ako Mitchell). When the hope of their duet ‘The Wheels of a Dream’ is so tragically destroyed, it is pretty impossible not to be overwhelmed by the raw emotion of it all. Saayeng is right at the beginning of her career and it’s going to be a very successful one if this vocal performance is anything to go by.
Jonathan Stewart also deserves credit for his impassioned and convincing work as Younger Brother.
As the American Presidential election approaches, the themes of Ragtime seem as relevant as ever. Go along and see this production because its powerful message is never better delivered than here.
* On this occasion the Little Girl and Little Boy were played by two fine young actors, Alana Hinge and Ethan Quinn.
Readers may also be interested in:
Ragtime at Charing Cross Theatre – new gallery of images
Tickets for Ragtime are available HERE.