Ragtime at Charing Cross TheatreCultureTheatre
Thom Sutherland, director of sellout production Titanic, works his magic again with a revival of the award-winning musical based on EL Doctorow’s 1975 novel Ragtime.
Set in pre-World War I New York, the musical is firmly rooted in the historical reality of the time, charting the lives and interactions of a triangle of representational protagonists: Harlem piano player Coalhouse Walker Jr; white, middle-class Mother; and Jewish Latvian immigrant Tateh. Their fictional narratives are seamlessly interwoven with those of flesh and blood figures such as escape-artist Harry Houdini, anarchist Emma Goldman and industrialist Henry Ford. The themes of poverty, racism and injustice are hauntingly relevant to a 2016 audience: scenes of fatal clashes between police and black protestors, immigrants making perilous journeys on boats only to be met with broken promises, and entertainment escapism offering the only respite from social disintegration cast a bleak mirror image of today’s newsfeeds.
What Doctorow’s story about the making of modern America lacks in nuance is more than replenished by Sutherland’s choreographical handling – and the cast’s immaculate execution – of the musical co-created by scriptwriter Terrence McNally, lyricist Lynn Ahren and composer Stephen Flaherty. The vaudeville-esque performance is simply spot-on: not a beat or note is missed as every cast member perpetually fills the stage singing, dancing or playing an instrument – or sometimes all three. Joanna Hickman kills it as Evelyn Nesbitt, her legs clamped impressively around a cello while hurtling out her lyrics atop a piano. Stunning Anita Louise Combe delivers honey-like vocals as a graceful yet determined Mother. Ako Mitchell plays a powerful Coalhouse Walker Jr, generating palpable chemistry through moving duets with Jennifer Saayeng as Sarah. Seyi Omooba’s brief moments front of stage take the audience by storm with her breathtaking gospel hanging heavy in the air.
But the great strength of the production is its fluidity: the lighting, staging and choreography create a stretch of musical that doesn’t have a single crease or break. The intimate space of the subterranean stage is transformed through evoking the smoky backwaters of Harlem’s bars, casting a striking silhouette of towering Coalhouse as he faces the police, and conjuring a misty sea as ships pass in the night. The ragtime music is skillfully threaded throughout, its rhythm lolloping on on the pair of upright pianos that sit acentre the whole performance, resilient to the human catastrophe unfolding around it.
Though the storytelling devices may be somewhat blunt, a slick production from a super talented cast ensures Ragtime is a visual and musical delight from beginning to end.
Photos: Scott Rylander/Annabel Vere
Ragtime is at Charing Cross Theatre from 8th October until 10th December 2016. Book your tickets here.
Watch the Anita Louise Combe sing Back to Before from Ragtime here: