Stirring the melting pot of America at the turn of the last century, ‘Ragtime’, based on the book by Terrence McNally, returns to London in this new production from Thom Southerland at The Charing Cross Theatre. ‘Ragtime’ packs a lot of storyline into a two and a half hour production, at times its structure is closer to a soap opera than a musical, as we dip in and out of different characters lives and settings.
We follow three distinct sets of people with stories that all intertwine with each other; a ragtime musician and the mother of his child, a successful businessman, his wife and family and a Jewish immigrant and his daughter. Then add to the mix a few prominent figures from history, such as Harry Houdini and Henry Ford, and all the players are in place for an epic tale of love, hate and human kindness.
Ako Mitchell plays the Ragtime musician ‘Coalhouse Walker Jr.’ he gives an intense and passionate performance that highlights the injustices that are common place in the era.
Anita Louise Combe plays ‘Mother’ (the family are all referred to in this way) and is superb throughout. No more so than in her solo performances of ‘What Kind of Woman’ and ‘Back to Before’. Equally impressive are her duets with ‘Tateh’, the Jewish Immigrant, played by Gary Tushaw. ‘Nothing Like The City’ and ‘Our Children’ sound beautiful with these two actors performing.Jonathan Stewart as ‘Younger Brother’ and Kate Robson-Stuart as ‘Kathleen’ also give stand-out performances, while Valerie Cutko as ‘Emma Goldman’ seems to revel in playing the socialist immigrant.
The majority of the cast also make up the orchestra, with the instruments being played on stage and taking almost as big a role as the actors. Special mention should go to Musical Director, Jordan Li Smith, who not only makes the whole thing sound wonderful, but is on stage throughout playing the piano, delivering the entire score completely from memory. That score is incredibly compelling and seems to swoop and soar as it covers everything from ‘cakewalks’, to ‘gospel’, to pure ‘rag’.
The staging works well, if you saw the last production here, Titanic, you may recognise some of the set up. Two pianos take prominence on the stage and are used for everything from a Model T Ford to a train carriage, while the cast regularly pass through the stalls to enter and exit the stage.
Though heart-rending in places, the music makes the whole production seem uplifting and empowering. As the storyline examines the treatment of immigrants it could almost be seen as a state of the nation musical, or alternatively, you can leave the state of the nation behind, and languish in the spectacle of the beautifully staged and performed musical, that is ‘Ragtime’.