Charing Cross Theatre, London (*****)

© Annabel Vere, Scott Rylander, Sarah Saayeng (Sarah) and Ako Mitchell (Coalhouse Walker Jr)

© Annabel Vere, Scott Rylander, Sarah Saayeng (Sarah) and Ako Mitchell (Coalhouse Walker Jr)

You begin to run out of superlatives when it comes to Thom Southerland and Danielle Tarento’s touch with small scale musicals.

Having seen three of their previous ones at Southwark Playhouse –Titanic, Grand Hotel and Allegro – it should comes as no surprise that even though they’ve now shifted over to the Charing Cross Theatre – the old Players Theatre, much improved but still hidden away under the arches at Embankment – the same spirit of élan and bravura staging in confined spaces continues unabated.

E L Doctorow’s original Ragtime novel I remember as a phenomenon from years ago that, I’m ashamed to say, sat on my shelves gathering dust. Having now seen what Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) subsequently turned it into, I can only regret my neglect.

It’s a terrific story. Three disparate New York couples at the turn of the 20th century – white middle class, African-American and immigrant Jew and his young daughter – whose lives intertwine as events push them into, for some, new beginnings, and others tragic outcomes.

© Annabel Vere, Scott Rylander, Anita Louise Combe (Mother, holding Sarah and Coalhouse's baby)

© Annabel Vere, Scott Rylander, Anita Louise Combe (Mother, holding Sarah and Coalhouse’s baby)

It’s all in there, as fresh and pertinent as ever; the uppity `black’ with music and ragtime in his fingers and the bigotry that dashes his dreams; the strait-laced middle class father and his dutiful wife whose humanity and ability to change with the times shines through like a burning beacon of hope. And the immigrant Jew, arriving penniless and eventually carving out a new life in `the new world’ through movies.

A story then on an epic scale but the triumph is in its intimacy and speed. McNally’s book cuts to the chase and although running in at over two hours and a half (and on press night in an auditorium that took on an atmosphere of fetid heat), Flaherty’s soaring, foot-tapping music with Ahrens’ Sondheimesque lyrics ensure attention never dips.

© Annabel Vere, Scott Rylander, the company

© Annabel Vere, Scott Rylander, the company

Then there’s the production itself. A company of actor-musicians on Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher’s simple balustrade set dominated by a twirling pair of pianos and platforms, whose punch and talent reaches ever higher crescendos.

It’s rare to say it – for me at any rate – but almost every song is a winner, every moment crystal clear and defined whether its Earl Carpenter’s rigid `Father’, Anita Louise Combe’s melting, evolving `Mother’ or Ako Mitchell’s impressive tenor-voiced, ragtime pianist, Coalhouse Walker Jr, burning up with revenge and injustice after the murder of Sarah, his girl friend and mother of his son, at the hands of a white racist.

But this is an ensemble piece, to its fingertips, politically charged and its story and message as relevant now as when first conceived by Doctorow 40 years ago. A musical indeed for our age.

Based on the book by E L Doctorow
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens

Willie Conklin: Simon Anthony
Brigit: Bernadette Bangura
Grandfather/J P Morgan: Anthony Cable
Father: Earl Carpenter
Mother: Anita Louise Combe
Emma Goldman: Valerie Cutko
Harry Houdini: Christopher Dickins
Booker T Washington: Nolan Frederick
Henry Ford: Tom Giles
Evelyn Nesbitt: Joanna Hickman
Little Girl: Alana Hinge, Riya Vyas
Ensemble: Lemuel Knights
Ensemble/On-stage MD: Jordan Li-Smith
Ensemble: Martin Ludenbach
Harry K Thaw: James Mack
Ensemble: Sufia Manya
Coalhouse Walker Jr: Ako Michell
Sarah’s Friend: Seyi Omooba
Little Boy: Samuel Peterson, Ethan Quinn
Kathleen: Kate Robson-Stuart
Ensemble: Jess Ryan
Sarah: Jennifer Saayeng
Younger Brother: Jonathan Stewart
Tateh: Gary Tushaw

All other roles played by members of the company

Director: Thom Southerland
Orchestrator/Musical Supervisor: Mark Aspinall
Co-Set Designers: Tom Rogers, Toots Butcher
Lighting Designer: Howard Hudson
Sound Designer: Andrew Johnson
Costume Designer: Jonathan Lipman
Choreographer: Ewan Jones
Musical Director: Jordan Li-Smith
Children’s Director: Matthew Chandler
Costumes Supervisor: Kitty Hawkins
Wigs, Hair & Make-Up: Diana Estrada
Voice/Accent Coach: Simon Money
Casting Director: Danielle Tarento
Assistant Director: Abigail Pickard Price
Music Assistant: Charlie Ingles
Dance Captain: Simon Anthony

Producers: Danielle Tarento, Steve M Levy, Sean Sweeney, Vaughan Williams
Presented by arrangement with Music Theatre International (Europe) Ltd
First performance of this production of Ragtime at Charing Cross Theatre, Oct 8, 2016

First produced on Broadway, 1998.

Review first published on this website, Oct 18, 2016