RAGTIME - 9 April 2003

Ragtime is set in New York between 1906 and the end of WW1, bringing real people from history into the intertwining lives of the white protestants, the Jewish immigrants and the negros from Harlem. The quality of the book, characters, narrative and music make Ragtime one of the best musicals there is and the new London production uses these elements to the fore.

The staging is minimalist with a bare front stage, a raised platform / bridge at the back of the stage with the orchestra on top and below the platform mirrored / opaque doors all across the stage. The only props / staging are chairs and hand props. What could potentially look very bleak is enhanced to great effect by the lighting which succinctly sets the mood of the various scenes within the whole piece, creatively and effectively evoking the atmosphere of scenes from the ship at sea, to the Harlem clubs, to the beach and open air. This is a prime example of how a little suggestion can create enough for your mind to imagine the complete scene. The contrast of the costumes again evoked the different lives people led, the greys and browns of the immigrants contrasting with the red velvet of Evelyn’s ‘theatrical’ costume and the stark whiteness of mother and father.

The doors were used to great effect throughout the show but in particular to show the silhouettes of the immigrants in the Lower East Aide, the Harlem night club, the production line at the Ford Factory and also provided a way to move a character or show a glimpse of a scene away from the main action but kept it there so it still had a presence in the overall effect.

What a Game is a great example of natural chorography throughout the piece where the movement looks so natural that it doesn’t look staged. The Mexican wave was a fabulous touch !

The cast were uniformly excellent, from the principals to the ensemble. The whole feel of the cast had an energy and vigour creating a great feel to the show. I had seen 5 of the main cast in the Cardiff Concert in 2002, Maria Friedman (Mother), Dave Willetts (Father), Graham Bickley (Tateh), Matthew White (Younger Brother) and Rebecca Thornhill (Evelyn Nesbitt). Maria was excellent showing mother’s complete range of emotions from the woman dependent on her husband to the woman who knows there is much more for her to achieve. She created a genuine emotional journey that mother travelled, having her eyes opened to the changing world around her and who, unlike her husband, moves and changes with it. She sang the number very strongly and captured the spirit of mother.

Graham Bickley has made the role of Tateh completely his own, immersing himself into the character to produce from amongst an excellent cast an outstanding performance. He shows a man who will not stop fighting until he has achieved his worth in this new country and does this for his daughter. Maria and Graham had a lovely rapport and an attraction which was apparent from their fist meeting at the railway station long before they even knew who each other was and later on at the beach.

Dave Willetts’ bigoted father was very good, showing the hard lesson this man has to learn to change from the man who refused to lower himself to shake the hand of the ‘black’ Henson on the ship to the man who willing shakes the hand of Coalhouse. Yet even at the end he still truly believes in the dignity of his fellow white man only to have those principles shattered as Coalhouse is shot.

Matthew White’s younger brother is a very intense, troubled young man who despite looking never settles to find what he wants. Matthew has great character and presence as he conveys the struggle of Younger Brother, frustrated with his family and the world around him. Rebecca Thornhill has a great charm as the vaudeville star ‘Evelyn Nesbitt’, a glamorous chanteuse whose sparkle gradually fades throughout the evening as the fame diminishes and the cynical Evelyn arrives as the fickle hand of fame deals it’s verdict.

The parts of Coalhouse and Sarah were played by Kevyn Morrow and Emma Jay Thomas. Kevyn is an excellent performer bringing out the range of Coalhouse’s emotions form the ladies man to the one begging Sarah to forgive him to the bitter man who finally looses everything in a society which brings no justice. He has a smooth voice which carries the songs every well. Emma created a strong character in Sarah, with both a vulnerability and hidden strength. Where her voice may not have the richness of other Sarah’s she sang a lovely ‘Your’ Daddy’s son’ and she had an excellent rapport with Kevyn.

The children in Ragtime both have significant parts to play in the story. Matt Protheroe was extremely good as the little boy Edgar, had good character, natural facial expressions and timing for all Edgar’s little ‘saying things he shouldn’t’ Ruby Williams was also very good as Tateh’s Little girl.

Ragtime is a very emotional piece and for me the heart-warming conclusion to New Music (as Sarah finally returns to Coalhouse), the incredibly moving ‘Till We Reach that day’ (at Sarah’s funeral) and the final scene as the spirits of Coalhouse and Sarah watch their growing son never fail to completely move me to tears.

It is a joy to watch this production of what is such a fantastic musical, the stunning score is graced with some wonderful singing which brings out the heart and soul of the piece. It is beyond a satisfying evening at the theatre and I would gladly make a return trip anytime.

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