Book by Terrence McNally. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.
5 Stars *****
Charing Cross Theatre, The Arches, Villiers Street, London WC2N 6NL to 10 December 2016.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm. Mat Wed 2.30pm & Sat 3pm.
Runs 2hr 50 mins One interval.
TICKETSA: 0844 930 650.
Review: William Russell 17 October.
A Ragtime to rave about-with a stunning central performance.
The fifth star – after all there has to be a reason why one awards stars– is there not because of Thom Southerland’s staging of this 1998 Broadway show, good though it is and worth the first four by anybody’s standards, but because it contains a superb performance from Ako Mitchell as Coalhouse Walker Jr.
Mitchell is spellbinding, dominates the stage, exuding both charm and an almost manic determination not to be downtrodden by white folks as he stands up for his rights. It is one of the best performances one will see in a musical this year and worth a star all of its own.
Terrence McNally did a splendid job filleting E.L.Doctorow’s picaresque and complex novel set in the 1920s which has three main plot lines. There is a white family living in New Rochelle headed by Mother, Anita Louise Combe singing beautifully, and bigoted Father, who doesn’t like blacks, played by Earl Carpenter. He goes off on an expedition to the Antarctic, she finds an abandoned black baby boy in the garden, traces Sarah, his mother, and gives them shelter. Jennifer Saayeng, touching as the abandoned shell shocked Sarah, refuses at first to have anything to do with the baby’s father, Coalhouse, an itinerant musician and ragtime pianist, who comes on the scene driving a posh car to the rage of the redneck whites.
Meanwhile a Jewish immigrant, Tateh, played by Gary Tushaw not quite incisively enough, arrives with his young daughter seeking, as everyone is, the American dream. Their lives become inextricably mixed up. Add all sorts of heroes of the age from Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbitt, the girl on the red velvet swing, Henry Ford, Booker T Washington, and the activist Emma Goldman, impressively played by statuesque Valerie Cutko, and the result is rich indeed. If the show has a flaw it is that each story line gives the leads a big solo to belt out to the house, and as the long first act proceeds they seem to follow relentlessly one on the other. It is a tribute to Mr Southerland – and the performers – that it does not drag.
Flaherty’s score has some lovely songs and rousing ragtime tunes, while Lynn Ahrens lyrics are well worth listening to. So well is the show sung, not always the case these days, one gets to hear the words. Mr Southerland does his usual sterling job – he is one of the best directors of musicals around – but he does have his little ways some of them which could well be laid to rest for a bit. There is, for instance, a first rate set by Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher which rises above the limitations of the theatre to create a splendid acting space. Then all of a sudden the Southerland liking for moveable ladder like platforms reveals itself as they whirl here, there and everywhere cluttering things up on an already full stage where there are also two upright pianos and lots of cast members playing musical instruments.
Ragtime, for all that, provides a great time both in terms of performance and for the content of the book – Doctorow had a lot to say about black Americans and the American dream and it is still there.
Willie Conklin: Simon Anthony.
Brigit: Bernadette Bangura.
Grandfather/J.P. Morgan: Anthony Cable.
Father: Earl Carpenter.
Mother: Anita Louise Combe.
Emma Goldman: Valerie Cutko.
Harry Houdini: Christopher Dickins.
Booker T Washington: Nolan Frederick.
Henry Ford: Tom Giles.
Evelyn Nesbitt: Joanna Hickman.
Little Girl: Alana Hinge/Riya Vyas.
Ensemble: Lemuel Knights.
Ensemble/On stage MD: Jordan Li Smith.
Ensemble: Martin Ludenbach.
Harry K Thaw: James Mack.
Ensemble: Sofia Manya.
Coalhouse Walker Jr: Ako Mitchell.
Sarah’s Friend: Seyi Omooba.
Little Boy: Samuel Peterson/Ethan Quinn.
Kathleen: Kate Robson Stuart.
Ensemble: Jess Ryan.
Sarah: Jennifer Saayeng.
Younger Brother: Jonathan Stewart.
Tateh: Gary Tushaw.
Director: Thom Southerland.
Orchestrator/Musical Supervisor: Mark Aspinall.
Set Designers: Tim Rogers & Toots Butcher.
Lighting Designer: Howard Hudson.
Sound Designer: Andrew Johnson.
Costume Designer: Jonathan Lipman.
Choreographer: Ewen Jones.
Musical Director: Jordan Li Smith.
Voice/Accent Coach: Simon Money.
Children’s Director: Matthew Chandler.
Wigs, Hair & Makeup:Diana Estrada