★★★ | RAGTIME, London Theatre
The US is in turmoil: racial discrimination is rife while immigrants arrive by the boatload to escape feast and famine in their own countries. This could describe present-day US but it’s actually the early 20th century in the new production of Ragtime now playing at The Charing Cross Theatre.
Ragtime the novel was originally written in 1975 and had its London stage debut in 2003, after it had debuted on Broadway in 1998. The revival of the show was brought back to London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2012. This new version, directed by Thom Southerland, is very ambitious, with a very crowded cast of 24 on a stage barely able to fit in their singing, dancing and acting.
It’s the turn of the 20th century in New York and we are sung the story of three different groups; an upper class family, African Americans, and Eastern European immigrants, and eventually all their lives will cross in a show that packs a lot in its over two hour running time in a theatre that was too hot and a bit too uncomfortable.
The upper-class family takes from and centre. It’s the wife, who’s called Mother (Anita Louise Combe) with a young son and a husband who leaves the family behind to go on an exhibition to the North Pole. Then there’s the African Americans, fronted by Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Ako Mitchell), a Harlem musician whose girlfriend Sarah (Jennifer Saayeng) leaves her baby on Mother’s doorstep, but eventually moves in with Mother and is found living there by Coalhouse. Then there’s the immigrants – Tateh (Gary Tushaw) and his daughter (Alana Hinge) – who arrive in the big city with nothing to their name. However they don’t find their American dream in New York so Tateh decides they should go to Boston but right before their trip they meet Mother and her son. And trouble is in store for Coalhouse and Sarah who get harassed by unfriendly locals and it’s at this point when the first half ends.
The second fails to match the first half’s intensity and drama. It neatly wraps up the storylines, with themes of reunions and acceptance but it’s all a bit of a letdown after the energetic and frantic first half. The cast are all fine, with the excellent vocal chords of Saayeng and Bernadette Bangura. And Combe and Tushaw provide much dramatic acting in their roles, while Samuel Peterson is adorable and perfect as the son on the night I saw it.
If there ever was a musical that’s full of music, this is the one. It’s a good old classic American story that’s pure red, white and blue – there’s nothing as American as this show. And what a pertinent time to have on display this show of Americana, when the U.S. is going through a most unusual election, and where black men are continuously getting killed, and immigrants from all over the world wanting to live to live there. What took place in the early 20th century is still taking place today.
Ragtime is now playing at the Charing Cross Theatre until Dec. 10th.