Director Thom Southerland is adept at choosing to direct musicals which might give other directors pause. At the Southwark Playhouse, where he has worked most regularly recently, he has staged GRAND HOTEL, ALLEGRO, GREY GARDENS and TITANIC, four musicals that would never turn up in an established West End theatre; some need too big a cast or would be deemed too risky at the box-office.
His appointment to be artistic director of the previously troublesome off-West End Charing Cross Theatre this summer has given him the chance to revive his production of TITANIC (which has now won 6 off-West End theatre awards) and, after a hiccup with the cancellation of the second show - the nostalgic RADIO TIMES - Southerland has chosen another tricky musical as his next production, the Tony Award-winning RAGTIME.
Based on EL Doctorow's groundbreaking novel, which mixed fact and fiction to show the powder-keg of events in the New York of 1900, RAGTIME opened in 1998 which, although it ran for two years, did not recoup due to the blockbuster production costs. The show has faults; Terrence McNally's book struggles at times with focus as he has to corral fourteen main and supporting characters throughout, there is certainly too much emphasis on the growing friendship of Mother and immigrant Tateh rather than the more powerful storyline involving black ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr.'s terrorist revenge attacks.
Although, as a whole, the score is a glorious explosion of turn-of-the-century pastiche numbers and tear-jerking ballads, Lynn Ahrens' lyrics sometimes overstate themselves in contrast to Stephen Flaherty's consistently excellent music. But be that as it may, I have been a huge fan of the score since I first heard the original cast recording and again, it was fantastic to hear it 'live' on stage.
Sadly my main drawback with Southerland's otherwise hugely enjoyable production is the return of the dreaded "actor as musician" so we have the absurd directorial choice of Joanna Hickman as Evelyn Nesbitt singing her excellent solo "Crime of The Century" hidden behind a double bass and the only thing that the actor playing Harry Houdini wrestles out of is the accordion permanently strapped to his chest. It was profoundly irritating, a hired band could easily have been stowed in one of the side balconies as the Donmar does when it stages musicals.
Among those not brandishing instruments were some very good performances: Anita Louise Combe was a wonderfully warm and sympathetic Mother and she literally rose to the occasion (while standing on a piano) to belt out the character's big belt song "Back To Before", the oddly angular Valerie Cutko, although physically wrong for the role, was very good as the communist firebrand Emma Goldman - who coincidentally said "If I can't dance to it, it's not my revolution" which really should have been a title of a song for her. I have always wondered how the communist anarchist Goldman would react had she known that she would feature in two Broadway musicals (the other being Sondheim's ASSASSINS)?
Ako Mitchell was an imposing presence as the vengeful Coalhouse Walker Jnr. but was sometimes a bit wonky in his higher notes however Jennifer Saayeng as his beloved and doomed Sarah was vocally very strong and gave a very centred and moving performance. I liked Jonathan Stewart's Younger Brother who finally finds a purpose in blowing things up and there was a scene/song-stealing turn from Seyi Omooba (in her professional debut) who brought some serious church to the mournful "Till We Reach That Day".
Sadly for me two lead performances failed to really connect: Gary Tushaw as the Jewish immigrant Tateh was too overwrought (why did he think he was singing in the Albert Hall?) and Earl Carpenter was a touch too anonymous as Father, a shame as there is much to be mined in this character who refuses to acknowledge that his world has changed until it is too late. A special mention too for Howard Harrison's atmospheric lighting design.
You have until December 10th to experience the majestic sweep of the Flaherty/Ahrens score - surely one of the greatest in the last 20 years - as well as Southerland's ingenious production.
Watching the show it slowly dawns on you that in these days of urban terrorism, distrust of immigrants, tawdry celebrity, America's questioning of itself and Black Lives Matter, the concerns of 1900 and RAGTIME are not that far away. Highly recommended.