Theatre Review: Ragtime The Musical

Date Posted: 12/06/2012

Rebekah Tailor went to experience the magic of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, as it opens its 80th season with Timothy Sheader’s Ragtime The Musical.

The show summed up in one sentence... An unrelenting musical expose of the social and racial prejudices of an early 20th century America, spectacularly staged in the atmospheric surroundings of Regent’s Park. 

Who should see it? Featuring big time power ballads, Ragtime should be well-received by fans of Les Misérablesdramatic musical score. Group of all ages will also enjoy the magical experience of watching a production at this open air theatre.

With a growing reputation for presenting award-winning musical revivals, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre returns for its 80th season this summer with Timothy Sheader’s vision of Tony Award-winning production, Ragtime The Musical.

Director Sheader’s past successes include Hello, Dolly!, Into the Woods and Crazy for You; and with each bagging an Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival for the last three years running, the bar’s been set high for Ragtime.

A powerful production charting the social and racial prejudices of America’s so-called Progressive Era; Ragtime’s staging in the intimate, leafy surroundings of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, seems oddly out of place to begin with.

However as night draws in and the spectacle unfolds, the drama on-stage is undoubtedly heightened by its unique setting, as tensions increase and the atmosphere within the stalls becomes simply electric.

Set at the turn of the 20th century in a story as disjointed as the strains of its Ragtime chords; the contrasting lives of three families become entwined in a bittersweet tale of wealth and poverty, freedom and prejudice, hope and despair.

Each with their own ideal of the American Dream, there’s the matriarch of a white, upper class family living in New Rochelle known simply as Mother; Latvian immigrant Tateh seeking a better life for him and his daughter in the new world; and Harlem Ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, who’s determined to set the wheels in motion for a fresh start with baby-mother Sarah.

The production is bizarrely punctuated by cameos from historical figures including industrialist Henry Ford, banking magnate J.P. Morgan, chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit, and master magician Harry Houdini. Providing some sense of validity; intermittent musical numbers performed by these minor characters offer moments of relief as well as contextualising the story.

Despite its namesake, there’s little room for ragtime within Stephen Flaherty’s musical score, which instead largely opts for big time power ballads.

Claudia Kariuki’s delivery of act one’s Your Daddy’s Son and Rosalie Craig’s execution of Back to Before in act two, is superbly spine-tingling, and stand out from what’s otherwise a disappointingly unmemorable score.

Both Kariuki and Craig deliver strong performances in the lead roles of Sarah and Mother respectively; however it was those playing minor roles who really stood out for me. Katie Brayben as Evelyn Nesbit was delightfully obnoxious; while Tamsin Carroll’s portrayal of anarchist Emma Goldman was both solid and sincere.

John Marquez as Tateh was everything I felt Rolan Bell’s Coalhouse should have been and almost was. Revealing a touching naivety and an irrepressible spirit, Marquez’s performance was incredibly compelling, and his story moved me beyond that of any other character.

Acting aside, one of the most impressive features of this production is undoubtedly Jon Bausor’s extraordinarily imaginative set design.

A capitalist wasteland strewn with the decapitated head of Starbucks and the broken arches of McDonalds’ golden ‘M’ amidst mounds of rubble; it’s a portrait of a broken America, mocked by the overlooking Obama ‘Dare to Dream’ billboard.

In a story which unashamedly force-feeds its audience with the injustices of an early 20th century America, it is Bausor’s set design which makes for a striking first impression and leaves a lasting image; inspiring rather than imposing opinion on the continuing prejudices and ongoing battles in the land of the free.

Ragtime The Musical is currently booking at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until the 8th September, running in repertory with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Group travel organisers can take advantage of concessionary rates when booking for a theatre group of ten or more.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

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