Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Review Ragtime

Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens

The Grand Illusion

If ever a musical was designed to fit the word "epic", surely Ragtime is that musical, a sweeping panorama of American life which artfully combines a child's eye view of an expansionist yet democratic, idealistic nation with complex adult concerns.

Adapted from a sprawling 1975 novel, which was followed by a 1981 movie, the musical distills the pre-First World War story into the tale of a WASP family - mother, father and little Edgar - a Jewish immigrant father and young daughter and, last but not least, a proud black musician and his lover who buy into the American dream only to suffer numerous injustices because of their race.
Its score encompasses the music of ragtime turning from the joyous to ominous, the rhythms of marching songs. soaring melodies of aspiration and love. Thom Southerland's production has many fine moments with a 24-strong cast of actor-musicians playing out the syncopated trail of ambition and tragedy.

Old and new, fictional and real life characters wend their way through and collide in the story of Ragtime filtered through the picture book and derring-do imagination of Edgar (Ethan Quinn alternating with Samuel Peterson) who pointedly also shares his first name with the writer of the original novel.

There are some crisp and visceral vocal ensembles from the first song Ragtime to the fine Getting Ready Rag led by black musician Coalhouse Walker Jr (Ako Mitchell) and the resonant New Music. Anita Louise Combe as Edgar's mother transforms from restrained wife to a person in her own right, providing one of the highlights  of the show in Back To Before. As well as Seyi Omooba's solo (and professional debut) in the thrilling Till We Reach That Day.

There's a feel of pioneer America in the saloon bar set with scattered stars on the wood panelling, designed by Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher. This musical manages no mean feat in intertwining the birth of the movies, the rights of women, tabloid journalism and the growing strength of the workers' movement in America with a sprinkling of literary references.

Nevertheless with a large cast, the stage does sometimes feel over-busy and there are occasional lapses.  Sitting in the third row, there were times when the mic levels disrupted the piece. This was particularly evident, despite a fine performance by Jennifer Saayeng as Coalhouse's lover Sarah, in the crescendo of one of the show's best known songs, Your Daddy's Son.

The separate ultimate fates of Sarah and Coalhouse also felt slightly diluted - Sarah's moment of tragedy by the sound levels of the ensemble and a lack of tension in Coalhouse's final act.  At these times, the action and ironies needed sharper definiton. 

Yet, the beauty of the score and the intelligence of the lyrics and book with its touches of humour still shine through. Even in the more seemingly peripheral role of escape artist Harry Houdini (Christopher Dickins), there is a double resonance, very subtly, both politics and entertainment, to the chains binding him.

As the show underlines it is Houdini who has the most knowledge and understanding about himself and America,  "he knew he was only an illusionist". It's an amber/green light for a flawed but energetic and exciting production.

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