Tag Archives: Stephen Flaherty

“Ragtime” at the Charing Cross Theatre

This is a big one. Based on EL Doctorow’s novel, this musical has a book by Terrence McNally that preserves the theme of hope on a grand scale. The music and lyrics, by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, are a huge success, with not a melody or line out of place. It’s the most ambitious show yet from Thom Southerland, who handles the piece brilliantly and deserves the largest number of accolades possible – Ragtime gets five stars from me.

There are many stories to follow here, each with a musical motif meticulously combined into a satisfying whole. An in-depth examination of the ‘pyramid’ of American society, before World War I and on the cusp of change, WASPs, African-Americans and European immigrants are all compellingly portrayed. The fate of children is at the fore, as is the question, what kind of community do we really want? I told you it was immense.

Jennifer Saayeng and Ako Mitchell
Jennifer Saayeng and Ako Mitchell

A wealthy white family embodies conflict. Father is resistant to change and disconcerted by the “new music”. Mother, a Liberty-like figure, understands you can never go “back to before”. Their roles are superbly performed by Earl Carpenter and Anita Louise Combe. Family life is changed by contact with an African-American couple, Sarah and Coalhouse, whose powerful story of romance and racism is performed with passion by Jennifer Saayeng and Ako Mitchell. And there’s a Jewish immigrant, Tateh, whose trials and eventual success are the lightest part of the piece. Gary Tushaw comes close to stealing the show (no mean feat) with a gorgeous performance.

Gary Tushaw
Gary Tushaw

More radical discontent comes with the presence of Anarchist Emma Goldman, ruthlessly embodied by Valerie Cutko, while Mother’s brother (a strong role for Jonathan Stewart) joins Coalhouse’s plan for revenge after a personal tragedy. Violent protest is the focus of the tension-filled second act – almost a mini Les Mis as the mix of fact and fiction creates a powerful synergy. Tackling the theme of terrorism, home grown at that, provides a startling edge.

Joanna Hickman
Joanna Hickman

The production’s masterstroke is to have talented onstage musicians, who memorably use their instruments as props. Tateh beats a drum as he attacks an assailant; there’s banjo-playing Simon Anthony, who makes a chilling racist thug; fife-playing Tom Giles, getting the most out of a number as Henry Ford; and an excellent role for cellist Joanna Hickman as a Chicago-style celebrity with a vaudeville routine. All are led by Jordan Li-Smith, the awesome onstage musical director, who holds the whole score in his head.

There’s a lot of history here, but it never overwhelms the show. Emotion is the key. Southerland directs with clarity yet avoids any mechanical precision. With songs as good at telling stories as these, goosebumps are guaranteed. This is one of the most moving musicals you could buy a ticket for. If it tips over into sentiment, so be it. To sum up a big success quickly – see this show.

Until 10 December 2016

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“Ragtime” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

The Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s annual musical is an essential part of summer in London. Following hot on the heels of recent successes might intimidate a lesser man than director Timothy Sheader, but this year’s show, Ragtime, is more ambitious than ever. In a season crowded with events, it’s a bold and spirited affair.

Flaherty and Ahrens’ musical is a serious, dark work about American history and ideas, with a complex score that draws on the music from which it takes its title. It’s a challenging piece, taking on racism and terrorism with strong language; and there’s no playing safe for Sheader, who fights to make it relevant and broadens the work in astonishing fashion and to wonderful effect.

Jon Bausor’s excellent design is the first surprise – for last year’s Lord of the Flies he crashed a jet in the park – for Ragtime the auditorium looks like a rubbish dump with the cast entering through a derelict poster for the Obama campaign. Bausor’s work is a perfect match for Sheader’s time-bending twist on a story ostensibly set in 1906. The focus is on the power of politics to change and Ragtime’s ideals are moving ones. In true musical style, the characters’ aspirations gravitate around the world of entertainment: this is a world where dreams and drama occur “in heaven, in trouble and in Vaudeville”.

The production spoils us with strong central performances. Rosalie Craig and David Birrell are superb as a wealthy husband and wife whose lives intersect with the tragedy of a black couple, performed with great intensity by Rolan Bell and Claudia Kariuki, who makes a professional debut not to be missed. We also get a story of immigrant success, powerfully portrayed by John Marquez, and a host of historical figures that include Stephane Anelli as Harry Houdini in a scene-stealing escape act.

Sheader excels when dealing with Ragtime’s ensemble nature. The whole cast works exceptionally hard and shows great acting skill as well as doing justice to choreography from Javier de Frutos. Although one might consider Ragtime an alternative take on the American dream, it is deeply patriotic. Even though we have plenty of patriotism of our own at the moment, when this cast sings together it is sure to raise goose bumps regardless of the weather this summer – or your nationality.

Until 8 September 2012

www.openairtheatre.org

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 29 May 2012 for The London Magazine