Ragtime was beaten to the 1998 Tony Award for Best Musical by The Lion King, but if Disney has prevailed on Broadway -- where it has run ever since and become the most profitable entertainment of any kind in history, with global revenues in excess of $7billion -- I have no doubt which is the more important show. And the more moving one.
Ragtime knits together a musical tapestry of the state of the American nation at the turn of the twentieth century, as it portrays a white American family whose patriarch is an explorer intent on conquering unchartered waters; a Jewish immigrant single father and his daughter, newly arrived in America; and a black piano player who turns into a political activist after the mother of his son is killed in a protest. Based on E.L Doctorow's novel that became a Milos Forman film in 1981, it does what musicals do best: it amplifies emotion with a succession of stirring anthemic ballads, and keeps the separate stories weaving in and out of each other seamlessly.
That's partly a tribute to the economy of Terrence McNally's book and Ahrens and Flaherty's frequently gorgeous, uplifting score, but it is also newly galvanised by Thom Southerland's beautifully detailed, intricate and intimate staging. This is the sixth production of the show I've seen, including the original Broadway staging, a revival there and three separate London versions from the West End to the fringe and Regent's Park, and while the spectacle of the Broadway original will never be matched, this production achieves something none of the others have: it serves the show with an unadorned, direct simplicity that makes both its music and drama soar.
A large cast of 24 actor-musicians make it sound as rich as it ever has, especially resonantly in this intimate theatre; and having so many players available means the orchestral sound is never stinted, either.
There isn't a weak link anywhere in the ensemble, but a stunning cast of principal actors includes Anita Louise Combe, Earl Carpenter and Jonathan Stewart as the WASP family, Ako Mitchell as Coalhouse Walker and Jennifer Saayeng as his partner Sarah, Gary Tushaw as the immigrant Tateh and Joanna Hickman as showgirl Evelyn Nesbitt (who also wields a mean cello).
This is musical theatre at its best, and continues a winning streak for Southerland who has recently scored deserved hits with Allegro at Southwark Playhouse and Titanic at Charing Cross Theatre.
What the Press Said...
"An adroit — and timely — revival of a musical that deftly interweaves the personal and the political."
Ian Shuttleworth for The Financial Times
"Sutherland's production is extremely accomplished but it's hard to truly like a show that tries so hard to be loved."
Clare Alfree for The Telegraph