EL Doctrow’s sprawling 1975 novel Ragtime has a title that begs for it to be adapted into a musical, but the case for the work itself, an extraordinary amalgam of fact and fiction, was less clear. Until now. This show, a multiple Tony Award winner in 1998, has failed to make much of an impression over here previously, making it just the kind of sick patient that director Thom Southerland loves giving the kiss of life to, usually at Southwark Playhouse. Moving now to a subterranean venue that has for so long struggled to find an identity, he not only revives a great musical, but he also makes the theatre itself surface as an overnight star, a halfway house between fringe and West End.
Terence McNally’s skilful adaptation allows Southerland to create what resembles a giant mosaic of America at the very beginning of the 20th Century. Still bearing the scars of civil war, it is seen as a nation starting to look outward to the rest of the world, but at odds with itself as it embarks on a journey that would lead to it becoming the dominant global power. It was to be a century of opportunity, hope, discovery and conflict, a century that would see the motion picture industry blossom and the Broadway musical emerge alongside it as the greatest new art form. It is all here.
If the scope seems too vast, it helps that a single opening song can replace dozens of pages in the novel devoted to establishing characters and setting scenes. Lynn Ahrens’ precise lyrics rarely stray far from their primary purpose, which is to tell stories. Doctrow’s original work often feels fragmented, jumping almost randomly between characters and storylines, but McNally has consigned several characters to the peripheries and Southerland merges one scene into the next seamlessly, aided by music. A two-level set, with mobile units that incorporate steps, is becoming the director’s trademark, but it has never been used to better effect than in the design by Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher, which helps the show to flow. Howard Hudson’s lighting shows off both the sets and Jonathan Lipman’s period costumes to brilliant effect.
Southerland mixes musicians with actors in the ensemble and playing small roles, the integration giving the feeling that music is very much part of the age Illusionist Harry Houdini (Christopher Dickens) carries his piano accordion and glamorous theatre star Evelyn Nesbitt (Joanna Hickman) is a cellist. Other figures from real life – anarchist Emma Goldman (Valerie Cutko), car maker Henry Ford (Tom Giles), banker JP Morgan (Anthony Cable) and African American community leader Booker T Washington (Nolan Frederick) – appear fleetingly as they touch the lives of Doctrow’s fictional characters.
The show begins by telling the stories of three separate families who gradually become entwined with each other. Coalhouse Walker (Ako Mitchell) is a black pianist who fathers a child with Sarah (Jennifer Saayeng), abandons her and then repents. “Father” (Earl Carpenter) is an adventurer who departs on a polar expedition and “Mother” (Anita Louise Combe), left at home, gives refuge to Sarah and her baby. Tateh (Gary Tushaw) is a widower, an immigrant arriving from Latvia with a young daughter that he struggles to feed until he seizes at opportunities and becomes a pioneer in the movies. The characters go into a crucible to form a narrative driven by the racial injustices and social tensions that beset America at that time and still today.
Stephen Flaherty’s score includes influences not only of Scott Joplin-style rags, but also other American music such as gospel, country and blues. Yes there may be too many soaring anthems in the final stages, but, by then, the show has conjured up so much magic that most will not complain. The singing, particularly by Mitchell, Saayemg and Combe is superb, so strong in fact that it has given the Evening Standard critic a headache (poor thing!). This sublime production often comes so close to perfection that it is difficult to suppress tears of joy.
Performance date: 19 October 2016