Sentimentalist that I am, I’ve kept all my programmes and Playbills from productions I’ve been treated to over the years. So, when I was invited to the Press night of the new production of Ragtime the Musical at Regents Park Open Air Theatre, I couldn’t help but rummage for my playbill from the 1996 run I saw on Broadway. It won four Tony awards that year, (including Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score) so this new version had a lot to live up to.
With a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the thought-provoking musical is set at the turn of the 20th century, and unites three families separated by race and prospects in New York. My father once wisely declared that America is so fascinating because many of its cornerstones of culture were built by those immigrants who came in search of fame and fortune. It’s this sentiment that provides the focus of the show as we follow three very different families making their mark on Hollywood, politics, and each other.
Triple Olivier-Award winner Timothy Sheader adds a clever twist to the show by adding a prologue set in a present day junkyard, where a disenchanted Father of a future age tells his son all about the age of ‘Ragtime Music’. Dressed in the garbs of multicultural USA, the cast’s hijabs and miniskirts then make way for period dress as we begin the show itself. Our contemporary Americans morph into everything from Upper Class Suburbanites to Eastern European Jews to take on our protaganists; immigrant Jew ‘Tateh’, WASPy ‘Mother’, and Ragtime Musician Coalhouse Walker. With the actors embracing both time periods, one can’t help but note the not-too-subtle comparisons being drawn between today’s (recession-cumbered) America and the difficult times of the early 20th Century.
The cast sing and dance their way through scenes set in Harlem and New Rochelle, New York. They do so surrounded by the junkyard debris of modern American emblems; from golden arches to a ripped Obama Campaign Poster to abandoned fridges and TVs. Impressive, if slightly dangerous-looking, suspended swings and props allow characters like J.P Morgan (atop a safe crushing the commoners) and Evelyn Nesbit to shine, and offer a humorous interlude from the sparse stage and solemnity of most scenes. Truth be told, the overstated script can become a bit wearing at times. As we meander from injustice to ignorance to hope, one can’t help but wish for a little more lighthearted Ragtime and a little less self-righteous consideration.
One thing irked me in particular. Whilst Sheader’s ingenuity brought fresh eyes, I would quibble with the rather au courant decision to pursue casting that overlooked gender and race. Really? The point that the prejudices of the time were simplistic and ignorant haven’t escaped me. But, casting a woman as Booker T. Washington? I’m not so sure…
Still, some of the songs wowed me. Tearjerker gospel and finger-snapping syncopation combine brilliantly. Although I was spoiled in 1996 with the voices of Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell, there were some brilliant performances in this production. John Marquez (Tateh)brought a bit of spark to the stage, whilst Stephane Anelli (Harry Houdini) gives a live escapology performance not to be missed. You’ve got to give the guy credit; suspended upside down from a crane, whilst having to free himself from a strait jacket? Talk about pressure!
All in all? The production proved to be an ambitious one to say the least; with the staging and cast having to harness the energy and jaunt of the Ragtime tunes portrayed as defining a new sphere of opportunity. The show may over-do the ‘messages’ a tad, but you can overlook that and just submit to the toe-tapping goodness of the score.
Tickets Available Here Until September 2012
(Images: Johan Persson for Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre)