At a time when hate crime and racism is on the rise in post-Brexit Britain, Ragtime could not be more pertinent. The ravishing score starkly contrasts against the bitter blows suffered by some of the characters and superbly underpins the heroic and romantic aspects of the narrative. Thom Southerland’s revival is glorious in many ways, not the least because it reminds one, forcibly, of the talent available in London which is often shamefully overlooked by West End producers blindly groping for “stars”.
When Ragtime was last performed professionally in London, directorial conceits flattened the joy and brilliance of it. Colour blind casting ruptured the senses even if the silly apocalyptic setting did not. There was little sign of the dignified, powerful and heart-breaking show Ragtime should be.
Of course, there were some terrific performances and some wonderful singing. The moment that clings hardest to the memory is the second Act number, He Wanted To Say, which, clarion like, rang out with the superb voices of Harry Hepple and Tamsin Carroll; a powerful release of tension through vocal assuredness.
That number, He Wanted To Say, is missing from Thom Southerland’s revival of Ragtime, the 1996 musical from Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), now playing at the Charing Cross Theatre. It’s one of a number of surprises the production has to offer and it has the distinction of being the most unpleasant.
He Wanted To Say is an important dramatic step along the journey of Brother, one of the musical’s central characters. More than that, it provides a towering, majestic musical moment for ensemble, Brother and Emma Golden; a moment which perfectly balances a similar moment from Act One, between Father and Tateh, and sets up Mother’s heart-wrenching Back To Before, both by creating a musical full stop that permits respite before Mother gets to soar and by establishing another scenario from which there is no going back.
Deleting the song and replacing it with a short, far less impactful scene is the preference of the show’s creators and not a Southerland innovation. Regrettably, however, at least for those who know He Wanted To Say, the absence is unsettling and permits a jagged edge in Act Two which disrupts its symphonic progression. It’s a real pity.
Other issues niggle. The orchestral support for the score is gone, replaced by arrangements that revolve around two Pianos and actor/musicians. So many notes, so few instruments. Not everyone gets a costume change, even when the text suggests one. Some of the key supporting characters have little or insufficient life: Anthony Cable’s bland Grandfather, Valerie Cutko’s frankly weird Emma Goldman (more clothes horse than agent of social change), Christopher Dickins’ stiff Houdini, Joanna Hickman’s low wattage Evelyn Nesbitt. Some of the choreography (Ewan Jones) is underwhelming.
And yet…in the end, none of that really matters. Southerland has found a way to regenerate Ragtime, a way to tell its remarkable story with a musicality different to that it has had before and with a verve about the story-telling which is dignified, passionate and utterly, utterly glorious. This is a complete triumph, a fitting hat-trick for Southerland, coming as it does in the wake of his compelling and thrilling work on Titanic and Allegro.
Based upon E.L.Doctorow’s sweeping epic novel of the same name, Ragtime is a marvellous mix of big picture themes and very particular personal stories. It is at its most powerful when focussed on the particular, but it is at its most thrilling when individual strands collide with the state-of-the-nation themes and the question of what it is to be civilised is sharply assessed. Southerland understands this clearly and everything about the staging here emphasises the historical as well as the humanity.
There are various ways to approach Ragtime. It has many central characters and not all need be played particular ways. Southerland’s great trick here is to unearth the genial/hidden humanity in all of central characters and, where appropriate, contrast that against their actions. These are not kings, rulers or statesmen – these are ordinary people caught up in a conflagration in society which transforms almost all of them.
It is their ordinariness, underlined here by the actor/musician trope, which makes each so fascinating. Everyone is part of the furniture in this Ragtime, taking their moment in the spotlight and then melting back into the shadows, watching and assessing. This sense of constant movement ensures attention is always rapt, that there is no restlessness in the audience regardless of the complexity of the narrative, and that applause is reluctantly embarked upon in fear that something may be missed. Universiality and commonality infuse every scene.
There are many clever directorial touches. Tateh exhibits real violence and anger; Coalhouse is a sweet, cheerful man inexorably crushed by complacent racism and institutionalised injustice; Brother is lost and desperate; Father is intractable, entitlement having solidified like cement around his neck; Sarah lets fear and jealousy nearly destroy her and then loses her life because her perspective is naïve; Willie Conklin is a sweaty, truculent thug; Mother is, well…the hint is in her name – a wholly maternal healer.
Critically, all of these characters are real people. Warm, interesting and flawed, they reflect the lives and experiences of those who watch. It is impossible not to see one’s own self, one’s own life, at least in part, in the lives, loves and losses that play out onstage. It is both joyous and poignant.
Staging is simple but staggeringly effective. Using the pianos to represent Coalhouse’s pride and joy – his car – is a master stroke. When Conklin and his felonious accomplice strip the piano, the effect is more skewering, more palpably distressing than anything that might be done to a prop vehicle. Having Mother stand on the piano to deliver Back To Before, with the cast all around her, signifies that they are all part of the experience that has profoundly changed her. Moveable balconies represent ships passing in the bay, the Union Square lecture, Evelyn’s perfomance space, a spot from where children can be seen in their frolic on the beach.
Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher (set design), Jonathan Lipman (costume design) and Howard Hudson (lighting design) have all done splendid, unerringly sensitive work. Hudson creates beautiful contrasts of light and darkness and really allows the cast to shine or melt away, depending on what is needed. Smoky haze is a welcome participant too.
It’s the unexpected that delights – Mother and Tateh meeting in Act Two both wearing cream and pink; the flashback where Coalhouse remembers meeting Sarah; the baseball game that unsettles Father; the hug that Coalhouse gives Brother which leads inevitably to the final moment between Father and Coalhouse, just before he is murdered; Tateh’s primal response to the ghastly white predator who wants to buy his daughter; the gentle, powerfully affecting rendition of Make Them Hear You, more prayer than anthem.
Musically, the work here is exceptional. Jordan Li Smith plays the piano and conducts proceedings with a ferocity, an impassioned clarity, that reminds one of Leonard Bernstein. Mark Aspinall’s arrangements are scintillating and they distil the essence of Flaherty’s score with consummate ease. No one plays from a score here – everyone is playing from memory, a staggering feat.
The energy Li Smith invests reaps real rewards: the sound is always beautiful, occasionally transcendent, with proper focus on harmonic, melodic and rhythmic pulses. The blending of voices is glorious. Ragtime tunes are sultry and beguiling, the Yiddish ones hopeful and jaunty, and the ballads and anthems, like Brother’s fireworks, go off with a bang.
At one point, Li Smith plays both pianos at once. It’s not indulgent, it serves a staging purpose. But it also readily signifies how integral to the texture and fundamentals of Ragtime Southerland considers the score. Would that all directors of musicals thought that way.
The 24 cast members acquit themselves very well when it comes to the playing of instruments while singing. Only once did the demands seem too great – a small matter of breath in the Henry Ford number. Elsewhere, there was delicate accompaniment work of great accuracy and timbre, with Hickman and Martin Ludenbach especially good and Simon Anthony’s banjo work just terrific.
A consistent treat in Southerland’s musicals is the high standard of the ensemble singing and there is no exception here. The skill is exceptional and the quality of sound made on stage is overwhelmingly exhilarating. From top to bottom, the notes are true, ringing, and aglow with feeling. Seyi Omooba is terrific in a virtuoso display of vocal grief towards the end of Act One. The opening number, The Wheels Of A Dream, The Night That Goldman Spoke, Till We Reach That Day, Atlantic City and the haunting Epilogue – each is a musical jewel, sparkling and unforgettable.
In the programme, McNally reveals a disagreement between the authors, of book and musical, about whether Ragtime has heroes and, if it does, who he/she/they might be. This seems surprising, as it has always seemed tolerably clear that the heroes here are Mother and Tateh, both of whom are true to themselves throughout and both of whom adapt to their surroundings and circumstances, protecting their loved ones at any cost. Perhaps this is a reflection of the universality of the piece – those who watch it see champions in ideals they admire.
In any event, and rightly so, Southerland here emphasises and underlines the journeying on done by Tateh, the poor, talented immigrant hoping to carve out a new life in the land of opportunity, and Mother, the rich, upper echelon society hostess who realises the world around her is changing and seeks to change with it. Over the course of the musical, both characters become the best version of themselves they can be. Tateh and Mother are the heroes here.
It is no surprise, then, that the very best performances in this Ragtime come from Gary Tushaw (Tateh) and Anita Louise Combe (Mother). Both are flawless, delivering astute, charming performances soaked in agony, grace, style and, most importantly, hope.
Tushaw demonstrates a gravitas which is impressive and wholehearted. His free impassioned voice floats and belts and croons as needed, whether exuberant (Buffalo Nickel Photoplay Inc), in paternal mode (Gliding) or romantically reflective (Our Children). He makes vivid the plight of the immigrant, welcomed by the nation but rejected by its citizens. This Tateh is a captivating leading man, a true star turn.
Combe owns the stage throughout. Wrapped in dignity and heartfelt compassion, her Mother is all mother, the most maternal take on the role I have ever seen or heard. Combe’s brilliance lies in this simplicity, which allows Mother to realistically walk new paths, first with Sarah and Coalhouse, and then with Tateh. The change in Mother is gradual but firm and clearly portrayed – from the ache of horror that creases Combe’s face when she finds the discarded baby, through the joy of benevolence that follows, the need to point out Father’s deficiencies, the bond with the son of Coalhouse and Sarah, to the lonely introspection which finally results in her bloom bursting, with lifelong happiness secured with Tateh.
Vocally, Combe really delivers the goods and each time she sings, everything lifts. Back To Before is shattering, her clear, true soprano (and belt) in pristine form. Southerland’s inspired staging helps make this number especially effective – atop a piano, surrounded by the people in her life and the representatives of the greater world, Combe’s Mother takes strength from them all, powering through to the top notes that thrill and beguile. Equally impressive, though, is her gentler character work in Goodbye My Love, Nothing Like The City and the stupendously affecting Our Children, where she and Tushaw find a commonality that defies convention. Bravura in every way, Combe’s star burns brightly here.
The role of Father is the most difficult in the musical, not the least because he is the character most likely to be Donald Trump’s favourite. Implacable and unreadable, Father is not frosty so much as frozen – a relic of a different world order. Earl Carpenter brings his exquisite voice into full play here and every note is a luxury, from Journey On to What A Game!
Jonathan Stewart is in excellent form as Brother – handsome, lost, driven and eager like a puppy. Together, Carpenter and Stewart represent the notion that money can’t buy happiness, but in very different ways. Both are lost, but because of themselves not the women they love. A pair of finely drawn, tightly strung performances.
Ako Mitchell is a revelation as Coalhouse. Eschewing notions that have underpinned earlier interpretations, Mitchell plays Coalhouse as an ordinary, happy-go-lucky musician who gets wrapped up in extraordinary circumstances. His sincerity is his nobility and it works a treat. With rock solid support from Jennifer Saayeng as Sarah (her spine-tingling version of Your Daddy’s Son is exceptional), Mitchell’s performance is quite wonderfully honest and conflicted. He plays the piano with real finesse too.
Mitchell meets the vocal challenges of the role in an atypical way, letting the character drive the delivery. The Gettin’ Ready Rag and The Wheels Of A Dream are splendid, but Mitchell really makes Make Them Hear You dazzling, with a quiet resolve that really makes you listen.
Simon Anthony is delicious as Willie Conklin, the vile, racist petty criminal who inadvertently lights the blue touch paper but is too stupid to see the fire burning around him. Tom Giles is good in a variety of roles, but especially as Ford. Nolan Frederick’s Booker T Washington is memorably upright and Kate Robson-Stuart’s Kathleen shines sweetly. All sing with flair and aplomb.
The Charing Cross Theatre is a hot and unwelcoming place which makes Southerland’s achievements here all the more impressive. One is so absorbed in the unfolding musical narrative that there is no time for – or interest in – complaints about comfort. Ragtime is not short, but the pace and energy never flags and, aside from the loss of He Wanted To Know, every aspect of story and key character is explored and placed in glorious focus.
This is a masterful interpretation of one of the greatest musicals written in the Twentieth Century. In a Britain blighted by Brexit, whichever side of that particular divide you might occupy, Ragtime has an especially powerful and (sadly) up-to-date resonance. What happens to Tateh, Coalhouse and Sarah is happening to people in Britain today. This insightful production is all the more devastating – and beautiful – because of that background.
To slightly misquote E.L Doctorow:
The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like. Thom Southerland’s production will let you feel like it happened to you.
Ragtime stands for hope for a better world. Everyone should see it and stand with it.