“Giving the nation a new syncopation”
Is there a greater opening number to a musical than the self-titled prologue to Ragtime? It surely has to be up there amongst the contenders as Stephen Flaherty’s music bursts open onto the stage at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park in a blaze of syncopated rhythms and choreographic glory with one of those melodies destined to worm its way into your brain for days to come. It could be argued that the show never really reaches the same heights again, but it certainly tries hard.
Director Timothy Sheader’s high concept, supported by Jon Bausor’s eye-catching design, is of a contemporary society in the midst of the collapsed American Dream, looking back to its beginnings at the turn of the previous century in the stories taken from EL Doctorow’s novel and moulded into the book here by Terrence McNally. So in the ruins of an Obama-supporting billboard and the detritus of broken bits of Disney, McDonalds and Budweiser merchandise, the company enact the intertwining tales of 3 groups – African-Americans, WASPs and Latvian immigrants – at a moment in time where it seemed that great change was just on the horizon.
Performances are largely very strong: Rosalie Craig holds the stage effortlessly as the kindly Mother as she makes a serious bid to be considered one of our leading ladies; John Marquez bounds with energy and charm as hard-working Tateh whose pursuit of his dream to support his daughter leads to great things; and Tamsin Carroll is excellent as the strident anarchist Emma Goldman. The likes of Harry Hepple, Sopha Nomvete and Carl Sanderson make up a supporting cast oozing with quality and in the cases of Katie Brayben’s showgirl Evelyn Nesbit and Stephane Anelli’s Houdini, brimming with daring as they negotiate being suspended by a mini-crane.
At the same time, Rolan Bell’s Colahouse never quite achieves the air of relaxed affability he is straining for and Claudia Kariuki’s Sarah, whilst emotionally powerful, could have benefitted from greater vocal simplicity, especially in Your Daddy’s Son which ought to really touch the soul. But in their relationship and the way that it progresses through the show, something rather beautiful emerges and the slight sense of remove that is imposed by the concept (some of the gender- and colour-blind casting takes a little getting used, but only a little) actually makes sense here in the way that it allows them to interact in the second half.
Flaherty’s music, along with frequent collaborator Lynn Ahren’s lyrics, ultimately encompasses a wide range of musical styles which are all played expertly under Nigel Lilley’s musical direction and when the large company are in full voice, there is a gorgeous sound. Perhaps overall the play, and this production, tends towards the worthy with its relatively simplistic characterisations but in my view, the lack of complexity works well with these broad brushstrokes of history which reach for a wider meaning than the specificities of the individuals in front of us. So perhaps less of a crowd-pleaser for the Open Air Theatre than its musical offerings of the past few years, but no less enjoyable for it in the end.