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Rolan Bell and Claudia Kariuki in Ragtime at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London
Rolan Bell and Claudia Kariuki in Ragtime. Photo © Johan Persson.
Book by Terrence McNally, Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
At Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London.
Until September 8, 2012
Reviewed by Jarlath O’Connell

Timothy Sheader, Artistic Director of the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, has the place on a roll. For the past three years their productions have won the Olivier Award for Musical Revival. Hello Dolly and Into the Woods were great popular hits and last year’s Crazy For You had a respectable run in the West End.

This year’s show, Ragtime, is a harder sell and they are to be congratulated for their courage in giving an airing to this great modern musical. They have, however, taken an already complex multi-layered piece and added a framing device, set in the present and in modern dress. Against the backdrop of a tattered ‘Dare to Dream’ Obama election poster and a landslide of detritus (think 9/11), designer John Bausor has only managed to make a complex piece even more diffuse. It detracts from the piece but thankfully just bookends it.

Sheader’s taut staging more than makes up for this shortcoming, and the production is invigorated by great singing from the ensemble cast and some beautiful tableaux from choreographer and former enfant terrible of the contemporary dance world, Javier de Frutos.

Based on the novel by E L Doctorow, vRagtime became a multi Oscar nominated film by Milos Forman in 1981 and a Broadway musical in 1998. It tells the story of three groups of New Englanders around 1910, represented by the proud African American Coalhouse Walker Jnr (Rolan Bell), the WASP ‘Mother’ (Rosalie Craig in a fine full blooded performance) and the newly arrived, impoverished, Jewish immigrant Tateh (John Marquez). Around their stories it carefully maps the emerging social consciousness of the time.

Their lives are entwined when the privileged white lady takes in Coalhouse’s newborn baby and its mother. Later, after being widowed, ‘Mother’ ends up marrying Tateh, who has eventually prospered in the land of opportunity when his ‘photoplay’ business spawns the movie industry. Racism raises its ugly head when the proud Coalhouse takes revenge on his cruel tormenters by taking hostages and the ensuing siege brings together this disparate group of characters.

The piece is suffused by the honeyed tones of ragtime music, the “new music” which itself was symbolic of a new beginning and Flaherty’s deliciously evocative score builds on this sound aided by Ahrens’ clever lyrics. He also realises he’s doing a show and delivers some great numbers, including a belter of an “11 o’clock” number for Mother called Back to Before.

Terrence McNally’s adaptation anchors the piece in the intimate human story at the centre of the novel, while mining the rich kaleidoscope of characters provided by Doctorow, who cleverly interweaves a host of historical characters into the plot. Henry Ford, Booker T Washington, Emma Goldman and burlesque star Evelyn Nesbitt (“I’m a personality, not an actress”) all appear. Harry Houdini also turns up with his escapology act and an onstage crane allows the Open Air theatre for the first time to fly in a cast member, if not some scenery - being an open-air thrust stage has always hindered them in terms of sets.
This production has great scale, immense flair and it deserves to be seen.

Note: The Delacorte Theater in Central Park, New York is restaging the Open Air Theatre’s production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods from 2010. It will run there from July 23 to August 25, 2012, a first for the Open Air.


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