Picture a beautiful warm evening at the end of May, light from the sunset streaming through the leafy green trees of Regent’s Park. A perfect setting for theatre wouldn’t you agree? Under the leadership of Artistic Director Timothy Sheader, the Open Air Theatre has won the last three consecutive Olivier Awards for Best Musical Revival, so when I booked a ticket for this year’s summer musical, ‘Ragtime’, I was anticipating a show with equal promise success as its predecessors ‘Hello Dolly’, ‘Into the Woods’ and ‘Crazy for You’. The production itself was wonderful, with a fantastic set, exciting staging and vibrant company, but unfortunately it is let down slightly by the less than exciting plot in comparison to previous years. Nevertheless, an enjoyable evening was had, and the enchanting surroundings of the Open Air Theatre is enough to distract anyone from a bit of a shaky story.
‘Ragtime’ is a musical based on the 1975 novel of the same name by E.L.Doctorow, with music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and book by Terrence McNally. The story, set in the early twentieth century, follows the events of the lives of an upper-middle class or ‘wasp’ family living in New Rochelle, New York, A Latvian Jewish immigrant and his daughter, and a black ragtime pianist and his wife and baby. Attempting to link rag music with the near-impossible aspiration of achieving the American Dream, the characters lives intertwine to show the difficulties, prejudices and social divides at the time. There are also a few cameo appearances in the plot from various historical characters, such as Harry Houdini, Henry Ford and J.P.Morgan. Whilst being quite tragic, rather than being moving, I feel that the musical tries too hard to push its way into the pedestal category of all-time American greats. That isn’t to say that the music isn’t fantastic, the jaunty rhythms and soulful ballads of rag music are very entertaining, and there are still a few moments of heartbreak.
As previously mentioned, Jon Bausor’s set was creative and thought provoking, with the period story being played out in a modern day rubbish tip, signifying the broken aspirations of so many Americans failing to achieve the American Dream. What was most striking, however, was the torn Obama’s ‘Dare to Dream’ billboard poster, and consumer goods signs which subtly challenged the audience into comparing the struggles of recession-hit America today with the America of ragtime. This juxtaposition of the past and present is explored further through the costume changes. Cast members first arrive on stage in modern clothing before changing into their period costume, again changing at the end of the piece. A very relevant decision by Costume Designer, Laura Hopkins. Perhaps the most spectacular part of the production however, was the live escape of Harry Houdini whilst dangling upside down from a wire on a crane.
Rolan Bell’s portrayal of ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker was powerful, and he was very much the dominant figure on stage during his scenes. Whilst Bell wasn’t the strongest vocally on the night, there were elements of pain and struggle in his tone that was quite moving, particularly after the death of Sarah. Incidentally, Claudia Kariuki who plays Coalhouse’s wife Sarah, had a beautifully rich and soulful voice that blended well with Bell in songs such as ‘Wheels of a Dream’ and ‘Sarah’s Brown Eyes’.
John Marquez did very well in the role of Latvian immigrant Tateh, chasing the American Dream and searching for a better life for his young daughter. Marquez conveyed the selfless devotion of a doting father quite touchingly, and also brought brief elements of humour to a rather unfunny script. In fact, Tateh is perhaps the one of the few characters the audience feels warmth towards, and his progression from poor street seller into film director is a very welcome touch of light in an otherwise quite heavy story.
Rosalie Craig as Mother is the performance that was by far the most rounded of the production. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her before in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ musical at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane a few years ago, so I knew that I could expect vocal perfection from her, but I was also very intrigued and excited to be seeing her in a role that has a bit more meat to it acting wise. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. During the song ‘Back to Before’, Craig masterfully showcased her marvellous vocal range, gorgeous tone and perfect phrasing, leaving the audience in awe of her talent. In fact, as well as many gasps I can say I noticed a far few tears being wiped away by my surrounding audience members. Moreover, in every scene Craig wore her heart on her sleeve, drawing the audience in emotionally to her sympathetic and endearring character. Clearly not just a fantastic voice, Rosalie Craig has also established herself as a wonderful leading lady in this performance.
Once again, I have to give a special mention and give much deserved credit to the child performers of the production. Rory Fraser as Little Boy and Oriana Pooles gave very professional and accomplished performances, and I was very impressed by their abilities to maintain perfect American and Eastern European accents respectively throughout the performance. Two talents that will definitely shine in the future.
Overall, I’m giving the show three and a half stars. I very much enjoyed the staging of the performance, and the talent on show was incredible, however I feel that the fantastic production is let down somewhat by the rather mediocre storyline. After three glorious years, I fear the sun has set on the award-winning musical revivals of the Open Air Theatre. Nevertheless, in such a magical setting in the heart of one of London’s most beautiful parks, it’s extremely hard not to fall under the spell of Timothy Sheader’s inspiring work. Following ‘Ragtime’, the summer season will move on to Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and with many of this cast staying on, and in such remarkable surroundings, I imagine that it will be most successful indeed.