Time for a ragtag rag: Ragtime at the Regent’s Park open air theatre

Saturday 28th July 2012, matinée

When we arrived at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre on a sunny Saturday afternoon for the matinée of Ragtime, we were intrigued.  The outdoor stage had been transformed into a smoking pile of rubble, sporting a smashed up election poster for Barrack Obama and strategically placed symbols of American culture, with various cast members wandering around in modern dress.  We hadn’t seen such an impressively post-apocalyptic set since visiting Universal Studios and seeing the set of War of the Worlds.  With two previous productions which really hit the mark for us, ‘Hello Dolly’ and ‘Crazy for You’, our expectations were high. 

Whilst the production values were impressive, and there were some memorable performances, we did come out (after nearly three hours), wondering why the production team had chosen this particular musical, albeit garnered with Tony Award nominations when it was first performed.  Written in the 1998 and based on a novel from 1975, the scope of the story is very broad, and it is easy to see why this might seem like a good subject for a musical – the ragtime theme is as much about historical changes in America in the early twentieth century as about a style of music.  The opening sequence promises a sweeping historical drama to match ‘Les Miserables’.  Unfortunately the result reminded us more of Road Show, which we found similarly chaotic and uninvolving.

The action begins as a ‘play within a play’ which seems to have a young child as the audience.  This might explain the rather patronising tone of the exposition, which informs us that the US is mostly made up of immigrants seeking their fortune, and includes a whirlwind introduction to the characters, including historical figures such as Houdini and JP Morgan, although little use is made of them subsequently.  The intention may be honourable, but there are just too many clichés and stock characters, and rather a lot of sentimentality.  The plot revolves around three groups of people:  an upper class white family, a black musician and his ill-fated would-be wife and child, and a Latvian artist who becomes a movie director.  The lives of these people intertwine in various ways against the historical back-drop of ‘ragtime’.   Unfortunately, the ideas seem to dominate to the detriment of character development and real drama.  The action, which should have been heartbreaking in places, just seems like a framework for a historical thesis which we are none to clear about either.  The modern setting is also a little puzzling.  Although there was a powerfully realised vision, we weren’t able to see any meaningful connection with the story being told. 

Having said all this, the execution was excellent, as we have come to expect from the team at Regent’s Park.  The space is cleverly used with multiple entrances and a single crane which serves to winch performers up (including a brave Stephane Anelli as Harry Houdini).  The choreography was imaginative and the first big number (Ragtime) is suitably rousing.  Similarly there are some excellent performances, with Claudia Kariuki, fresh out of Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, giving a moving vocal performance as Sarah in ‘Your Daddy’s son’, and making us wish we could have heard more from her.  Rosalie Craig as mother is also vocally impressive and creates a sympathetic character out of a cypher, whilst Katie Brayben as Evelyn Nesbit gives a witty and lighthearted rendition of ‘Crime of the Century’ hoisted high above the audience on a swing.  As Coalhouse Walker, Rolan Bell brings the right amount of swagger, and perhaps resists the temptation to try to make the character into a hero, but he does not seem to have the depth of expression in his singing voice to bring out the emotional conflict of the character.

If this had been a revival of a genuine classic from the times, there would at least have been a sense of authenticity about it, but as it is the piece just seems too much like a history lesson.

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