The opening of the 1998 Broadway musical Ragtime promises so much and delivers so little. America assembles at the turn of the last century in a syncopated company cakewalk, a ragtime stomp that suggests an avalanche of joyous and uplifting theatrical elaboration.
In fact, that’s it folks. Scott Joplin has now left the building. It’s as if Oklahoma! had started with its title number and left you on your own to work out how the characters arrived at the creation of their new state in a series of feeble flashbacks.
With Ragtime, director Timothy Sheader goes even further: his stage, designed by Jon Bausor, is a statement of shambles and finality, the evaporation of the American dream with a ripped Stars and Stripes flag, the singed portrait of Barack Obama, a huge demolition crane and a Mickey Mouse doll among the rubble.
Terrence McNally’s filleting of E L Doctorow’s 1975 kaleidoscopic novel is more efficient than inspirational, draining the thing of its juice and fire in the neatly arranged narrative segments of the generic white middle-class family, the black underclass and the swarm of immigrants.
Elements of these various stories catch the light, and are mobilised in some fine choreography by Javier de Frutos, before getting lost in a series of completely unmemorable anthems and chorales by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics). Even worse, there’s a serious dislocation between the political emancipation of the central character – the jazz pianist Coalhouse Walker (a subdued Rolan Bell) – and the musical language in which he expresses himself.
There’s racial tension without much tension, although the original Broadway production had the magnificent and charismatic Brian Stokes Mitchell in the lead. Here, the supposedly iconic historical characters of Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, J P Morgan (whoops, that’s a bit unfortunate) and Harry Houdini flicker to life and are immediately extinguished.
The melting pot of America simmers down into coagulant goo, despite the best efforts of John Marquez, for instance, as Tateh, the immigrant picture book artist: “America is our shtetl,” he proclaims, as an aeroplane on the sound effects for once obliterates the aeroplanes in the London night sky; and he soon becomes a movie director.
Rosalie Craig is a striking and full-voiced maternal figure, investing her bland lyrics with something approaching true sentiment and poignancy. But despite one or two flash points of action (the abuse of Coalhouse’s Model T Ford, for instance, or Emma Goldman rabble-rousing in Union Square) there’s a becalmed mood to the evening.
In many ways, Sheader and his team have revolutionised how shows are presented at this venue, notably in revivals of Lord of the Flies and Into the Woods. But Ragtime does not fulfil its promise of Shakespearean complexity, and soon becomes a penance to sit through; and not being able to see the band (they are supervised by Nigel Lilley on a hidden platform way up in the trees) is another serious deprivation.