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Review Round-up: Mixed bag for Ragtime

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Timothy Sheader's production of the 1998 Broadway musical Ragtime opened at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre (where Sheader is artistic director), on 18 May. It runs in repertoire until 8 September.

The musical, an adaptation of E L Doctorow's 1975 novel, is by Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and tells the story of three very different families at the turn of the 20th century.

Rosalie Craig, Rolan Bell and John Marquez star, the design is by Jon Bausor and choreography is by Javier de Frutos.  

Michael Coveney

"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...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)...Ragtime does not fulfil its promise of Shakespearean complexity, and soon becomes a penance to sit through."

Charles Spencer

"I find it hard to get excited about this year’s musical, Ragtime, however, first staged on Broadway in 1998. 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 American musicals...Unfortunately there isn’t nearly as much ragtime as one would like, with the composer Stephen Flaherty usually opting for sentimental power ballads in the Les Miz tradition. There is also a punishing lack of humour in the script and some modish gender- and colour-blind casting which seems perverse in a show in which race and sex are important issues. There are strong performances from Rolan Bell as Coalhouse Walker, the ragtime musician who turns terrorist in his fight against racial prejudice; Rosalie Craig as the loving white mother who adopts an abandoned black baby; and John Marquez as the East European immigrant with an ailing daughter who finally hits the big time as a movie magnate. But while there is no doubting the vigour and skill of the staging, the show itself often feels like a po-faced, self-important bore."

Ian Shuttleworth
Financial Times

"Perhaps more than any other work, that of Stephen Sondheim not excepted, Ragtime is an index of the ambition of the contemporary American musical. Composer Stephen Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and scriptwriter Terrence McNally adapted E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling 1975 novel about class, race and family in early 20th-century America more expansively and with more explicit attention to its themes than Milos Forman’s film version, yet also more engagingly and – a rare achievement – more concisely...The main action weaves among three families, one WASP, one black, one Latvian-Jewish immigrant. The opportunities offered by the US and its sometimes ruthless racism sound equally strongly, and with as much relevance to today. As bigoted small-town firemen made monkey noises at ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr, I was reminded of a news story that had broken barely hours earlier reporting that such hideous mockery is still common among football crowds in Euro 2012 co-host Ukraine...this is a production that overall matches its material in scope and audacity, and pretty much in success as well."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Ragtime is based on E L Doctorow’s 1975 novel of that name, a kaleidoscopic vision of America’s capitalist boom in the early years of the 20th century. But anyone expecting a feast of Scott Joplin will be disappointed. The idiom here is on the whole grand and brassy, albeit with elements of dissonance to evoke the period’s capacity for assimilating new people and their particular voices...Two things are missing from the resulting confection: humour and any trace of real eroticism. And an air of self-importance hangs over the treatment of political radicalism, which could do with more subtle handling — a fault of the material, not the interpretation. 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. Musically there are also moments of epic sweep, with several stirring numbers. There’s confident work from Harry Hepple and Claudia Kariuki, and Rolan Bell brings a charismatic clarity to Coalhouse. Especially impressive, as Mother, is the radiant Rosalie Craig, who is surely a star in the making."

Libby Purves

"It’s a musical, but don’t expect the rackety fun of last year’s Crazy for You. Jon Bausor’s high-concept design for director Timothy Sheader is striking, brilliant, and a terrible mistake. It works against the piece, overwhelming story and sense with a simplistic metaphor of capitalist decline. Not what the Doctorow ordered. Nor does Terrence McNally’s musical version demand all this laboriously updated irony. It is a panorama of America’s 1900s, mixing fiction with real characters from Houdini to Henry Ford...It would take the Sondheim of Sweeney Todd to make a great musical out of Doctorow’s dry, dark, period-precise complexity. McNally tried but the last thing his lesser work needs is to drag in Obama, Starbucks signs and the implication that modern America is a mess. The disappointment is greater because Sheader is a fabulously adventurous leader of his (now refurbished) sylvan theatre, not afraid of the dark side...Rolan Bell is powerful as Coalhouse, and Rosalie Craig as the white woman who saves his baby conveys a poignant sense of womanhood moving tentatively into a new age of decision and dilemmas. John Marquez is an impressive Tateh, the Jewish artist seizing the American dream, and the singing and set-piece choreography is good (Stephen Flaherty’s music is fun in ragtime and vaudeville pastiches, otherwise unmemorable)."

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