“And say to those who blame us for the way we chose to fight
That sometimes there are battles that are more than black or white.”
It’s impossible to watch Ragtime right now without marvelling at its relevance to the current US presidential election campaign and the lessons that were right there for Donald Trump and his team to learn. For in many ways, the show – written by Ahrens and Flaherty with book by Terrence McNally from EL Doctorow’s novel – is about the development of the modern American nation and identifies three key groups instrumental in that societal change in women, African-Americans and immigrant communities, the very people Trump has done his damnedest to alienate.
Politics aside, what’s more significant is the magical touch that director Thom Southerland seems to have when it comes to reconceiving musicals, as his actor-musician production here at the Charing Cross Theatre is an extraordinary success. Keeping most of his 24-strong company onstage throughout amplifies the overarching humanity of its storytelling, reminding us that these are all of our stories regardless of whichever group we ‘belong’. Combined with the expert musicality onstage and an ingenious design from Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher, it’s an irresistible adaptation that shouldn’t be missed.
Set in the early part of the 20th century across New York State, the story shows us the frictions in a society that professed to be open to all but in reality, was stubbornly resistant to change. So instead of opportunity aplenty, talented Jewish artist Tateh arrives from Latvia with his daughter to end up hawking his work on the street. And as itinerant musician Coalhouse Walker Jnr surfs the rise of ragtime music in Harlem, he and his partner Sarah experience terrible racism in downstate New York. Watching from a position of privilege, but increasingly not immune, is a WASP family can’t help but become involved.
Strong performances are par for the course in Southerland productions but it still shouldn’t be taken for granted. Ako Mitchell’s Coalhouse is terrific as a man drawn into activism and Jennifer Saayeng is simply outstanding as Sarah, a hugely emotional ‘Your Daddy’s Son’ proving one of the evening’s highlights along with their stirring duet ‘Wheels of a Dream’. Gary Tushaw brings real heart to the honourable Tateh, determined to protect his daughter at all costs, and Anita Louise Combe shimmers as Mother, soaring through the show’s big ballad ‘Back To Before’ as her compassionate nature initiates huge change for her family.
The quality is evident throughout the cast though – professional debutant Seyi Omooba rips through the gospel lament that closes the first act, Earl Carpenter and Jonathan Stewart provide contrasting portraits of white masculinity and the choices it has to make as Father and Younger Brother respectively, Valerie Cutko makes for an imposing but not unkind figure as anarchist Emma Goldman, Joanna Hickman’s cheeky cellist of a showgirl is another delight, the list just goes on. And as deeply moving as Ragtime remains, you can’t help but feel it has an added piquancy here and now in its reminder of how contributions to society come from all angles, not just the politically convenient ones.