After a trio of Olivier Award-winning musical revivals in three years, expectations were rightly sky high for the Regent’s Park Open Air theatre’s Ragtime The Musical.
Unlike two of those previous winners, Hello Dolly! and Crazy For You, Ragtime isn’t a carefree tale packed with grin-inducing dance routines and bold primary coloured costumes. It is an altogether more serious and darker proposition, even more so than the venue’s third winner, Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods.
Though differing in style, the quality that the theatre has built a reputation for persists. From the opening bars of the anthemic opening number, Ragtime, a rousing company song that pounds with the beat of life while laying out racial divisions within America at the turn of the 20th century, that much is clear.
The musical, which features music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics from Lynn Ahrens, tells the story of a disparate country emerging, struggling and melding through the individual tales of a handful of overlapping characters.
David Birrell’s emotionally restricted suburbanite Father can see his world changing around him; Rosalie Craig’s touchingly compassionate Mother is stepping up and taking control in his absence, while African Americans are beginning to find their voice and immigrants from Eastern Europe are flooding to America’s opportunity-rich lands.
All this change, as the history books tell us, is not as easy as it seems, with prejudices rife and opportunity not as prevalent as a Lithuanian silhouette artist might believe. Chance meetings, shock discoveries and a selection of historical characters from JP Morgan – there’s now a wonderful irony about the ensemble singing a song titled Success to the banking magnate – to Harry Houdini string the characters and the plot together.
Director Timothy Sheader has chosen to set his tale in an apocalyptic wasteland with a half-destroyed billboard of Barack Obama looking down on proceedings and symbols of America – a football helmet, a McDonald’s sign – scattered amid the rubble. The talented ensemble switch from modern dress to historical outfits, looking back on how America started on its way to this flotsam-strewn junkyard. Yet the symbolism and emphasis of this bold decision is never fully realised.
The setting aside, Sheader has collected an ensemble whose performances are nothing if not wholly truthful and authentic. From the incredible strength and heart of Craig’s Mother to the love, passion and burning rage of Rolan Bell’s Coalhouse Walker and the optimism, joy and paternal love of John Marquez’s Tateh, they are emotionally pitch perfect.
The potent emotion is as present in speech as it is in song, with Claudia Kariuki clawing at the audience’s heartstrings when she sings Your Daddy’s Son to the child she abandoned, Craig bringing the house down with her performance of Back To Before and the whole ensemble setting spines a-tingle with first half closer Till We Reach That Day.
The Open Air theatre may well have another musical hit on its hands. We’ll have to wait until next spring to see if they can make it four.