Book: Terrence McNally
Music: Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens
Director: Robert McWhir
Reviewer: Catherine Love
The Landor Theatre, despite a recent run of bad luck with programming, has established quite a reputation for mounting impressive small-scale musicals, but Ragtime is one of its most ambitious downsizing projects to date. This whirling, turn of the 20th century kaleidoscope of colour and music would seem to demand the American maxim of the bigger the better, but the Landor’s perfectly formed musical in miniature proves that size does not always matter.
In Flaherty and Ahrens’ musical tapestry of America’s diverse and conflicting cultural roots, it is the beginning of the 20th century in the town of New Rochelle, where racial lines are still firmly drawn. But the music of ragtime is playing in a tumultuous era of change. In a breathtaking, richly layered opening number we are introduced to a white middle-class family, the persecuted black community and the scores of immigrants flooding America’s shores; a simplified but neat device employed to illustrate the three-way clash between cultures and communities.
A chain of love, conflict and prejudice is initiated when the mother of this privileged white family discovers an abandoned black baby and impulsively takes in both child and mother. A troubled young black couple, played in a gut-wrenching display of emotion by Kurt Kansley and Rosalind James, thus form a bond of friendship with Mother in a tentative motion towards bridging the deep divides of race. This torn but compassionate woman, movingly and sensitively portrayed in a powerhouse performance from Louisa Lydell, is the emotional core of the piece, with her actions acting as the catalyst to throw this contrasting collection of characters together.
The cast of 23 manage to fill the Landor’s small stage with all the bustle and noise of crowded streets, painting a vivid portrait of the seething American melting pot, a pot that is about to boil over in an eruption of unrest. Although immigrants – like the excellent, heart-breaking John Barr as a protective Jewish father – arrive expectant and hungry for success, this is no American Dream and refuses to sidestep the uglier side of the good old US of A. While the musical does at times yield to the temptation towards sentimentality, its other virtues render these lapses forgivable and it remains at its most powerful when raging with injustice.
The small space of the Landor is transformed into the great American scenes on which these dramas are played out, with Martin Thomas’ ingeniously simple design creating skyscrapers, New York streets, gloomy back alley rooms and seaside funfairs through nothing more than the suggestion of a changing silhouette against a screen and the aid of Howard Hudson’s subtly evocative lighting. The vision of the piece, meanwhile, is a directorial feat from Robert McWhir, who has found endlessly inventive solutions to staging difficulties, creatively using every last inch of the modest stage and orchestrating an almost seamlessly choreographed flow of movement even at the most crowded moments.
Ragtime is an ambitious musical that is matched by an equally ambitious production. If the show sometimes reaches a little too far, with a few more threads than it can really hold on to, then it makes up for it with a great beating heart. Full of heart too is a production that conducts a masterclass in how to stage Fringe musicals and says that, contrary to the American way, bigger is not always better.