Rolan Bell (Coalhouse Walker) & Claudia Kariuki (Sarah)

Ragtime

20th July 2012

Ragtime at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

Reviewed by David Shadwick

You can usually rely on the Open Air Theatre to come up with a unique and innovative way of staging musicals. Over the past few years their revivals of Hello Dolly, Into the Woods and Crazy For You have all thrilled audiences and won many Olivier awards along the way.

This year they’re taking a bit of a risk by giving the lesser known Broadway musical Ragtime the al fresco treatment. This cult offering, set at the turn of the 20th century in America, is a story of hope for three unlikely families as their lives become intertwined in a society rife with racism, religion, class, politics and prejudice. A black pianist and his family from Harlem together with a white middle-class family and a Jewish refugee with his young daughter from Latvia all have hopes of a better world. It’s a craving that moulds their future.

Originally a period piece, it has been given a new twist by director Timothy Sheader who has mixed it up and combined the early 1900s with the present day. What we’re given is a cast of all nationalities and creeds in current dress who then change costume to become the characters of a bygone age. What we’re left with, at times, is a mixture which occasionally jars and is presented on a random setting: the aftermath of an explosion. Among the wreckage of household belongings and dominating proceedings is a ripped and burnt Obama pre-election banner with the slogan “Dare to Dream”. What a poignant statement this turns out to be.

It’s an interesting idea once you acclimatise to it, a bold and controversial interpretation that achieves much but does fall short on occasion. I wrestled with the casting of a black actor as the grandfather in a white family – particularly strange as this is a musical about class division and race – and a woman as Booker T Washington. Bizarre. That aside, though, and with some reservations about the ‘bombsite’ trying to be anything and everything in terms of location and setting, this production packs a punch and is moving and powerful.

Vocally, the entire cast is on fire, doing great justice to a score that boasts some breath-taking ballads and powerful anthems. Claudia Kariuki as Sarah and Rolan Bell as Coalhouse Walker, the ragtime musician, are stunning throughout, and captivating as they sing of a brighter destiny for their new born son.

Rosalie Craig gives a heart-felt and telling performance as a caring mother who adopts a black baby and John Marquez as Tateh, the Yiddish immigrant, is perfectly cast. I felt his every angst, his every emotion. His Act Two duet with Craig, Our Children, is a deeply emotional moment, as is Craig’s no-holds-barred Back to Before.

If you’re expecting a frivolous all-dancing show bursting with ragtime music, then the title may mislead, but there are some smatterings of light relief and fun among the drama, and none more so than the brilliantly staged ensemble number Getting Ready Rag, in which Javier de Frutos’s fabulous choreography really comes into its own.
Sheader’s production builds tension in all the right places, taking us on a roller coaster of emotions as dreams turn into nightmares and hateful events unfold. Ragtime’s underlying core is universal and still as relevant today as it was a century ago, accentuated by the return to modern dress by the cast at end of the piece.

Despite the weather trying to spoil proceedings, no rain was going to dampen the spirits of this committed and talented company who gave their all in this epic and enthralling piece of musical theatre.

Continues (in rep with A Midsummer Night’s Dream) until 8 September.

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