Ragtime, Charing Cross Theatre, London ★★★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Originally written for The Reviews HubEL Doctorow’s 1975 historical novel, Ragtime, set in the early years of the 20th Century, sees three (predominantly New York-based) communities – Harlem’s African-Americans, Jewish immigrants and a WASP family based in the genteel community of New Rochelle – intertwining with each other and a series of real-life figures in unexpected ways. It is an emotional read, charged with knowledge of the civil rights struggle in the decades since the novel’s setting, giving it due claim to being one of the greatest novels in American literature.

Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ musical adaptation feels similarly epic in scale, even though Doctorow’s multi-layered plots are somewhat filleted by Terence McNally’s book. The principal strands remain, though, stitched together by a score which takes the occasional comic turn, but is more often stirring and emotional. Director Thom Southerland, no stranger to bringing difficult or little-known musicals to the stage, here crafts a visual and aural treat that brings out the best in the work.

The company of Ragtime. Photo: Scott Rylander. View more production images

The decision to have the cast double as the band infuses the music throughout the show in a way that totally befits a musical named after the style of music in which pianist Coalhouse Walker (Ako Mitchell) specialises. Having performers play as they sing and dance offers the occasional moment of whimsy, such as when celebrity performer Evelyn Nesbitt (Joanna Hickman) plays the cello while perched atop an upright piano, pretending to be sitting in a swing. It also allows for fight choreography to feel more visceral – drum beats timed to coincide with the flying of fists sound so much less real when performed from offstage than they do here, the assailant literally beating his victim.

The coordination of the cast’s musical performances would be an achievement in itself. That musical director Jordan Li-Smith is on stage, playing from a fully memorised score for the duration of the show’s 2½ hours duration is nothing short of remarkable, and is a huge factor into why this production of Flaherty and Ahrens’ greatest work feels so satisfying. Visually it is just as sumptuous, Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher’s wooden set design – incorporating reused gantries from Titanic, Southerland’s previous production in this venue – is dark enough that the characters pop out as splashes of colour, illuminated by some of lighting designer Howard Hudson’s most thoughtful and intricately subtle work to date.

As the kindly matriarch of the well-to-do New Rochelle family whose compassion fuels much of the story’s drama, Anita Louise Combe’s Mother avoids saccharine sweetness, showing a steel that comes to the fore in both ‘What Kind of Woman’ and the show’s big eleven o’clock number, ‘Back to Before’. Earl Carpenter’s Father maintains a sense of dignity, even as his disdainful treatment of black people puts him at odds with his wife’s actions.

Other productions of Ragtime have been more effective than here of crafting fully rounded impressions of some of the real-life characters, such as political agitator and union campaigner Emma Goldman and escapologist Harry Houdini. But while that’s a slight drawback, it does give room for the central story strands to deliver greater emphasis. Mitchell’s Coalhouse and his sweetheart, Sarah (Jennifer Saayeng) effectively portray a couple whose missteps seem to be finally leading towards happiness, before Coalhouse’s experiences with the police trigger tragedy, and then a threat of violent direct action. Both actors get the opportunity to deliver strong solos, ensuring that the tragedy of their storyline packs the emotional heft that forms the backbone of the sprawling story.

Doctorow’s novel was published in an era where the civil rights struggles of the 1960s were still fresh, open wounds: while his work and the musical adaptation show how those same struggles could be reflected in America’s history, it also feels utterly contemporary.

Elsewhere, Gary Tushaw’s Latvian immigrant Tateh, who progresses from street artist to big movie producer, is a warm and passionate player in the bigger story. But it is newcomer Seyi Omooba, yet to graduate from drama school, who delivers the show’s strongest vocal performance, concluding the first act with a powerful lead vocal that stands out even among such a strong cast and marks her out as a talent to watch.

Continues until December 10.