It is impossible not to be obsessive and angry about this appalling spell of weather we are currently enduring. Just three days ago I got a thorough soaking at the Open Air Theatre at the opening night of their new version of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. And returning to the same venue tonight, I had a second drenching watching Timothy Sheader's revival of 'Ragtime The Musical'. Thankfully though, the rain held off a little longer than on Monday, so we managed to get into the second half of the show before the rain really got into its torrential stride and the show had to be brought to a halt once again. But I saw a lot more than I did three days before, so I can describe more about the show itself, and provide rather less of a weather report.
'Ragtime The Musical' is based on a novel written by E. L. Doctorow in 1975. It first appeared in musical format in 1996 and has since won a clutch of awards including Tony's and a 2004 Olivier Award. That gives an indication of the quality of the show which features music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. The musical style varies from gospel to ragtime (or rag-time if you prefer) and, overall, the score rivals most well-known musicals, though I would not go quite so far as to say that it is in the very top league.
The show is mostly, though not entirely, sung through. In other words, there is relatively little in the way of dialogue, though more than you may find in other musicals of this ilk. The story is a little difficult to get to grips with initially since it consists of vignettes involving what seem to be rather disparate characters. It all starts to become clearer after about 20 minutes or so as connections between the characters fall into place.
Jon Bausor's setting includes the large, free-standing crane which also features in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. And the two shows also share a large advertising hoarding at the back of the acting area, but in this show Barack Obama is the focal point of the (tattered) ad. The rest of the set is a kind of building site – suggesting a work in progress, or a society in the process of being constructed – and there is a large rubbish dump at the back of the stage, the significance of which is not exactly clear.
Turning-up nightly with the prospect of being drenched and getting only part-way through a show you have been rehearsing for weeks, must be hugely dispiriting for actors. But you would not get any inkling of that from the performances here. The overall impression is of an enormously talented, well-directed, cast with excellent singing voices. It seems the inclusion of children in shows these days is almost de rigueur, but the children here are an integral part of the story, and Rory Fraser as Edgar (on this occasion) demonstrated astonishing confidence and enviably authentic acting ability – but then, even at his young age, he has a list of credits almost as long as my arm. And he is well-supported by the adult members of the team who are uniformly focused and convincing, and all are accompanied by a fine orchestra under the direction of Nigel Lilley.
Though I am still unclear about Timothy Sheader's vision, especially in terms of the visual interpretation, I am nonetheless enormously impressed with the overall production and the quality of the score (which won a Tony in 1998). With a hat-trick of Olivier awards for musical revivals in the past 3 years, the Open Air Theatre and its artistic director have certainly found a winning niche. It certainly looks like they have another creative hit on their hands with this latest revival.
"You can't fault the way the piece is sung and staged – but, in attempting to provide a panorama of turn-of-the-century America, it inspires awe rather than affection."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Two things are missing from the resulting confection: humour and any trace of real eroticism....Timothy Sheader’s revival has an ambition to match that of Stephen Flaherty’s music. Visually it’s imposing, with a rubble-strewn set by Jon Bausor that suggests the connections between the present and the 1900s (both transitional phases) while conveying a bleak view of contemporary America. "
Henry Hitchins for The Evening Standard
"This is a production that overall matches its material in scope and audacity, and pretty much in success as well."
Ian Shuttleworth for The Financial Times
"The high production standards and fresh thinking that are the hallmark of Sheader’s tune-and-toe shows are still evident, but even he can’t entirely animate this ponderous piece that is so determined to stake its claim to being one of the all-time great...While there is no doubting the vigour and skill of the staging, the show itself often feels like a po-faced, self-important bore. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph