Repertoire and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are both back at Regent’s Park this year, but whereas the now annual musical usually comes last it has opened proceedings this time around. So a lot is riding on Ragtime, the 1997 Broadway show that is this year’s chosen musical, and director Timothy Sheader freights it with even more significance in every sense, from budget to bulging meaning.
Picking up where last summer’s Lord of the Flies left off, in which a plane seemed to have crashed on the theatre’s stage, Jon Bausor (who designed both) now provides another scenario for the aftermath. Here, against a wrecked billboard featuring an election poster of Barack Obama with the slogan ‘Dare to Dream’ still visible below its gashed centre, Ragtime’s focus turns from being a story about the transformation of a nation seen through the eyes and experiences of three families (WASP, African-American and Jewish immigrant) to a show which we are invited to see through the prism of the crushed ruins of the hopes that America once represented.
I’m not sure that Ragtime, with music that is full of anthemic surges and haunting melodies, can really support this metaphoric weight, nor should it need to. Sheader’s conceptually bold but ultimately ruinously over-stated physical production layers too much onto the layers that are already there.
With its cast stepping out in contemporary clothing, they’re like the tribe in Hair, coming to enact the show rather than embody it. There are yet more peculiar directorial choices to enhance the sense of unreality – why is Booker T Washington, for instance (who provides the moral compass to the earnest, avenging Coalhouse Walker, whose stand against white bullies to protect his car ends up in him losing his wife), played by a woman? And why, just as confusingly, is grandfather of the white household played by a black man? In this of all shows, colour blind casting makes no sense, since the entire show is about the specifics of race.
But if the production is all too full of distractions, at least the frequently glorious score has its own seriously captivating power, and is punchily rendered here under the superb musical direction of Nigel Lilley. There are some terrific vocal performances, particularly from Rosalie Craig, who arrives now in the top league of leading ladies as Mother, Claudia Kariuki’s moving Sarah as the mother of an illegitimate baby that Mother takes in and Tamsin Carroll as the impassioned activist Emma Goldman.
All, however, are fighting a losing battle against the dominating concept that forces them to comment on their characters rather than live them.
Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, London, May 18-September 8
- Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics). Based on the novel by EL Doctorow
- Regent’s Park Theatre Ltd
- Timothy Sheader
- Cast includes
- David Birrell, Rosalie Craig, Rolan Bell, Claudia Kariuki, John Marquez, Tamsin Carroll
- Running time
- 2hrs 40mins