Photo credit:Scott Rylander
After the epic production of Titanic over the summer, artistic director Thom Southerland is continuing his winning streak at Charing Cross Theatre with Ragtime. This musical adaptation of the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow brings together three different stories, each representing a group of people prominent within the US at the turn of the 20th century when Ragtime was at its height. And the new production is filled with heart and rhythm, just like the musical genre it's named after.
With a book by Terence McNally (Kiss of the Spider Woman) and music & lyrics by Stephen Flaherty (Seussical) and Lynn Ahrens (Rocky the Musical), Ragtime's first musical outing in North America in the '90s (opening in Toronto first, before moving down south to Broadway) was nominated for an astonishing 13 Tony Awards. The West End production a few years later was led by Maria Friedman and was nominated for nine Olivier Awards.
The storylines focus on an African-American couple, a white upper-class family in suburban New York, and a father-daughter duo of Easter European immigrants. There isn't a single protagonist, but there are several in each story. Starting off as individual strands they cleverly twine together, while showing the differences between the three groups of people. It highlights unfair privileges and hateful prejudice yet also a surprising grace and kindness between certain individuals that manage to rise above the paths set out for them. It is an eye-opening journey through US history and one that is still painfully relevant today.
Bringing this large, award-winning show to the relatively small space of the Charing Cross Theatre must have been a challenge, but artistic director Thom Southerland and company made it seem easy. With a cast not only acting and singing but performing the music of Ragtime as well, the stage was always full but never felt crowded.
Particular stand-outs in the multi-talented cast were Anita Louise Combe (Mother), Ako Mitchell (Coalhouse), Jonathan Stewart (Younger Brother), Gary Tushaw (Tateh) and Alana Hinge (Little Girl). They brought the heart and soul to Ragtime, and were the faces of the diverse groups of people they represented. I felt particularly touched by Coalhouse and Sarah's story, and was in awe by Tateh's remarkable journey throughout. I was especially impressed by Tushaw's interpretation after seeing him earlier this year in the far less superior Allegro.
Ragtime's score is part Into the Woods, parts Assassins (there is definitely a Sondheim feel to the melodies), and part soulful rhythm echoing the time period it's set in. The music is what brings the diverse cast of characters together and it's what makes this musical such a stand-out. Among the clashes, hatred and injustice there is hope, change and progress. And in a tumultuous time such as one we live in right now that is really worth remembering.