Ragtime - Review

Review by: 
Alan Bird

Ragtime, which opened on Broadway in 1998 and ran for two years, has music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lyn Ahrens, with book by Terrence McNally.

New York at the turn of the 20th century was a city of golden dreams and ghetto nightmares, a place which European immigrants fled to in order to escape poverty and persecution only to find themselves trapped in even deeper degradation. It was not just economics that divided New York and the rest of America but also race, religion and nationality - Negroes were still denied their rights as full American citizens due to racism, and Irish, Jewish and other immigrants from Europe where despised because of their status as ‘economic migrants’.

A Middle Class Wasp family who we simply know as Mother, Father, Younger Brother, Grandfather and Little Boy remain unaffected by these events until Mother discovers an abandoned Negro child in the garden- unable to turn away the child or its mother Sarah - she gives them both shelter in her home. Through this one event the family becomes more and more embroiled in the struggles of Negroes and newly arrived immigrants until their whole lives are turned upside down. We watch as personal tragedy and the desire for justice turn into ‘terrorist’ acts of revenge.

This story of love, violence and rebellion certainly punches with strong emotional clout and builds up to a dramatic ending that is far removed from the cloying sentimentality that one often associates with the musical stage. I am therefore left feeling puzzled why the director Stafford Arima chose to tell the story through the memories of ‘Little Boy’ who’s constantly cheery face seems remarkably untouched by the tragic events and who distracts from the bitter/sweetness of the characters’ lives, especially since there were so many soulful characters to choose from.

A sense of epicness is lacking from the production due to Robert Jones minimalist set, a bare stage with a backdrop of tarnished mirrors and wooden chairs for props. For a major West End musical I suspect audiences will expect more to aid their imagination for the different scenes rather than the mere re-arrangement of chairs. This and the small amount of dialogue between the characters fails to create a sense of motion and whilst it allows us to see the raw emotion of the central characters it also makes that emotion seem at times overdramatic. And although the musical score is fine, it is a little repetitive and I certainly did not leave the theatre humming the tunes!

Maria Friedman gives a wonderful strong and warm performance as Mother, her powerful voice rings with passion throughout the musical and she captures the innocence and decency with which white middle class American’s strongly claim to believe in. She slowly establishes her own will against that of her husband (performed competently by Dave Willetts) with silent determination rather then petulant indignation and this allows her character to develop with dignity and self-respect as the story unfolds.

Graham Bickley also gives an equally strong performance as Tateh the Jewish immigrant who has arrived in New York to make a new life, not for himself, but for his daughter ‘Little Girl’. He captures the anger and grit of a devoted father determined to save his little girl from further grief and misery, and yet keeps the warmth and gentleness of a loving parent and friend.

However, the star of the show is most definitely Kevyn Morrow who plays Coalhouse Walker, the Negro pianist who eventually ends up leading a black violent gang seeking justice and revenge for the murder of his common-law wife. He gives his character great nobility that makes his pain and misery all the more powerful and his strong voice rings clearly throughout the auditorium.

A powerful plot full of rich characters yet despite this the production fails to capture the full drama of this epic story

Alan Bird

What other critics had to say.....

NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "The score...rarely compels ear or heart." He goes on to say, "Maria Friedman...sings with a rich, sinuous virtuosity." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, " Brisk, pacey, tuneful..touching." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Packs a considerable emotional punch." CHARLES SPENCER for DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "A show blessed with real heart, great songs and superb performances."

External links to full reviews from popular press

The Times
The Guardian

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