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Ragtime provides three hours of real music theatre



Review by David Munro

IF YOU only enjoy musicals which are glitzy, with pop stars on balconies, or flying around the stage in strange cars, then avoid the Piccadilly Theatre like the plague. For there you will only find a bare stage, a few props, an enormously talented cast and three hours of real musical theatre.

The piece in question is entitled Ragtime and it was originally produced in Wales at the Cardiff Festival last year.

The plot deals with the 'American' who came into being after the Great War. The American who is part middle class white, part negro and part immigrant.

It aims to show how these three factors merged into the American nation of today. It achieves this by following the lives of a middle class New York family, a black piano player and a Latvian immigrant, from the turn of the century until just before the entry of America into the Great War.

Of course, there is a broadsheet quality about the plotting and an air of stereotyping about the representative characters chosen to illustrate it, but none the less it does provide three hours of enjoyable theatre.

The score by (Stephen Flaherty) has no hit tunes, but it carries the story along; there is no dancing to mention in the same breath as Mathew Bourne, but what there is, is pleasing and well executed.

Obviously, a polemical play stands or falls on its protagonists, and in London, the authors are well served by their cast.

The pivot of the plot, and the connecting link between the strands, is the Mother who befriends the Negro's family by taking in his wife (beautifully played and sung by Emma Jay Thomas) and illegitimate son, and encounters the Immigrant from time to time, falling in love with him along the way.

She is played by Maria Friedman, an actress whose presence has added the lustre to many otherwise lacklustre shows.

She is strangely coy in her programme CV as to her long and worthwhile career. To my mind, she has never had the right vehicle to convince the general public that they have a genuine musical star in their midst.

In Ragtime, she gives a faultless performance, as always, in what is a rather cut-out character, but she fleshes it out with her charm, making her a warm and credible woman.

Her husband personifies the 'liberal' attitude of a class for whom foreigners and negroes can be tolerated on the streets, if they behave themselves, but should never be encouraged to enter the house.

Consequently, he is an unsympathetic character, whom Dave Willetts is hard pressed to make sympathetic. It is a miracle that he does so and makes his eleventh hour volte-face credible.

The negro is played by Kevyn Morrow; an educated and smart musician, he is driven to become an activist by the intolerance shown to him, but manages to get a few good numbers under his belt before he is finally shot; thereby bringing the plot to an end.

Graham Bickley is the immigrant who apparently discovers movies on his own and becomes a Hollywood Tsar. He has a daughter and Maria Friedman has a son who get together and represent the next generation and the hope for the future.

There is a Labour sympathist in Maria Friedman's brother (Mathew White), a rabble-rousing militant female (Susie McKenna), an intolerant white racist (Howard Ellis), who precipitate the negro's descent into anarchy, and a Greek chorus in the shape of Houdini (Samuel James) and Evelyn Nesbit (Rebecca Thornhill) - all of which, you will say, is very much the mixture as before.

Here, performed on a bare stage with the minimum of props, the artistry of the players makes you forget the clichés of the story .The cast, in the words of one of the more powerful numbers, 'make them (the audience) hear'.

Stephen Flaherty's score, as a whole, serves the plot and there is no really outstanding hit tune.

The songs (lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) are serviceable and carry the action along allowing for moments of exhilaration in the dance sequences. If I call the score sub-Sondheim, this is not an insult; it has the same quality of dramatic justification as a Sondheim score, even if it lacks that additional 'something' one associates with Sondheim.

As a whole, it is a great deal better and more to the point than some of the other so-called scores echoing around the West End today. There is a leit-motif of a ragtime tune, which is effective and underscores the title (which is also the title of the novel on which the musical is based).

The action is fluid and one does not miss the absence of scenery which, in the American production, was integral to the plot and, whilst one or two of the plot lines or situations makes one realise that they were designed to be played in a set, this does not detract from the general effect.

In fact, one might almost say that the bare stage enhances the production, as the fluidity of movement and action it enables, disguises the more melodramatic and clichéd aspects of the plot.

For this, credit must be given to the director, Stafford Arima, who combines the disparate dramatic threads into a coherent and pleasurable entertainment. If an audience on a hot Saturday matinee is moved to give the players a standing ovation it proves, I suggest, that he has achieved turning an American's polemic into a Britisher's pleasure.

For this show is fundamentally the American, not the Bombay, dream but to me, at least, no nautch is good news.

The stark simple production suits the stark, not so simple action of the plot and I think, despite everything, Mrs Lincoln would have enjoyed this production and, if you are a lover of 'Theatre', so should you.

Ragtime by Terence McNally, Directed by Stafford Arima, Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Designed by Robert Jones, Lighting by Howard Harrison, Sound by Peter Kylenski, WITH: Maria Friedman, Dave Willetts, Graham Bickley, Kevyn Morrow, Mathew White, Emma Jay Thomas, Hope Augustus, Ian Davey, David Durham, Howard Ellis, Samuel James, Susie McKenna, Mark McKerracher, Vincent Pirillo, Rebecca Thornhill.

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