Theatre review: Ragtime The Musical

Posted by Gareth Hargreaves

Vaudeville pastiche and first rate performances gloss over the failing in Timothy Sheader's stage adaptation of EL Doctorow's 1975 novel.

A sweeping panorama of America at the turn of the 20th century mixing fiction with real characters from Houdini to Henry Ford, is presented in Timothy Sheader’s ambitious production of the musical Ragtime (Open Air Theatre), based on EL Doctorow’s 1975 novel.

The story unites three families separated by race and destiny whose fates interweave. The pivotal figure is Coalhouse Walker, a black jazz pianist whose Model T Ford gets smashed up by white racists and when his Lover Sarah tries to help she is killed, spurring him to seek retribution. Meanwhile a white woman, known simply as Mother, saves Sarah’s baby. A further plotline involves a penniless Jewish immigrant, Tuteh, who tries to secure a good life for his daughter by exploiting his talent for creating animations using picture books and eventually becomes a movie director.

This is a show about such diverse and stirring themes as immigration, vaudeville, hope and struggle, industrialisation, racism and anarchism, and Timothy Sheader’s revival displays real panache in its haunting ragtime music by Stephen Flaherty, exuberant dancing, vaudeville pastiches and moments of epic sweep.

What weakens this production, though, is its inappropriate set, dominated by a huge poster of Obama ripped down the middle and cascading, smoking rubble everywhere, with twisted fast-food signs, a tall crane, police tape, a half buried Stars and Stripes, a wrecked car and the Statue of Liberty askew, serving as a simplistic metaphor for capitalist decline and conveying a bleak view of contemporary America. This only serves to distract from the characters and plot and rams a preachy message down our throats.

However the performances are first rate, notably Rolan Bell who brings charisma and confidence to the role of Coalhouse, Rosalie Craig, conveying real poignance as the Mother, the voice of liberal America, Claudia Kariuki endearing as Sarah, and John Marquez as Tuteh, the Jewish artist seizing the American dream.

Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London 
Runs until September 8 
Box office: 0844 826 4242

Images: Johan Persson.

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