There is something enchanting about hearing music in a park, it sends tingles down your spine and is particularly affecting. This passionate and energetic production of Ragtime benefitted enormously from the wide open space… the music flowed freely and the show felt more captivating and inclusive.
This production is revived by Timothy Sheader (who has previously won the Olivier ‘best musical revival’ accolade three years running) – he presents a show that is impressively resolved. Regent’s Park has developed quite a reputation with its musical masterpieces: recently Hello Dolly, Into the Woods and Crazy for You have all received rave reviews on this chameleon stage.
The narrative of the present show, based on the EL Doctorow novel, is not always clear. The story begins at the clearing of a rubbish heap, a boy is tuning a radio until the mellow soft hum of ragtime music begins seeping from the speakers. The next three hours offer an overview of America a decade before the First World War. The spotlight is on three families and their quests for happiness and life satisfaction: an immigrant, Tateh and his daughter, Coalhouse Walker (a Harlem pianist), and an incongruous Wasp family.
I found Stephen Flaherty’s music hauntingly touching, with very human melodies. The sadness of the uneven rhythms and the lurching tunes can’t fail to transport the listener. My favourite moment came with the song ‘Daddy’s Son’ sung by the very able Claudia Kariuki (as Sarah): a dreamy song that seems to resonate through the whole park. The cast, spurred on by the tremendous band, work together as a team and I thought the chorus numbers were particularly strong. Of the lead roles it is Rolan Bell as Coalhouse Walker and John Marquez as Tateh who impress particularly: kind, bold men trying to make their mark on the world. David Birrell is less believable as Father despite giving a great performance as Theseus in the parallel show, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
This production is not without awe-inspiring tricks… Harry Houdini (Stephane Anelli) escapes from a straight-jacket upside down in the air, and Evelyn Nesbit (played by smiley Katie Brayben) swings high over the stage on a precarious swing. It is a balance of these highs and lows that make this show so appealing, capturing our attention from start to end and teaching us a little history along the way. And despite the melancholy nature of this musical, Sheader ensures the audience leaves the theatre feeling spirited and touched by the tale of Ragtime.
Ragtime continues at Regent’s Park until 8 September, book here.