“It was the music of something beginning…”
Earlier this year, it did seem that the Landor had a bit of a curse as a range of issues forced programme changes on more than one occasion, but they do seem to have hit their stride now. I didn’t catch Carousel but it seemed to go down well and that was followed an incomparable production of The Hired Man, probably one of the best shows of the year so far, so there was no pressure resting on the show following at all: Ragtime. Directed by Artistic Director Robert McWhir, Ragtime continues the Landor’s strong trend of delivering top-quality fringe musical theatre with unfeasibly large casts: over 20 people make up this ensemble! I caught a preview on a Sunday afternoon as a ticket for a tenner deal popped up on Twitter (if you’re on Twitter then think about following theatres you like as similar deals are frequently posted up there).
And I am pleased to report that Ragtime comes close to the heights of The Hired Man in creating a stunning piece of emotional drama, enlivened with some perky playfulness and all wrapped in a deliciously beautiful score (and funnily enough set in a similar time period). The opening number is a thing of pure joy, managing to cover the thematic scope of the play and fully introduce the three families around which the story turns. Terrence McNally’s book is based on a novel by E.L. Doctorow set at the turn of the twentieth century in a New York bustling with huge social change.
A cookie-cutter WASP family in quiet New Rochelle have their lives turned upside down when Mother finds an abandoned baby boy who is black. Against the prevailing social attitudes, she takes in the child and the mother too, Sarah and when the father, a ragtime pianist called Coalhouse Walker Jnr, finally tracks them down, he sets about wooing Sarah back as the mindset of this white family is completely opened up. Added into the mix is the arrival of a Jewish immigrant from Latvia with his daughter in search of opportunity and a new, better life. The stories of all three families collide and intersect in different ways as recognisable historical figures weave in and out as well: immigrant-done-good Harry Houdini, political activist Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, JP Morgan, Booker T Washington amongst others, as the families share out both happy and tragic endings.
It is all rather weighty stuff but the fast-moving montage of scenes is given a deftness of touch here by McWhir’s direction, enlivened here with some sparky and fun choreography, and there with some spectacular performances. Rosalind James is simply sensational as Sarah, she made me cry three times in the first half alone, with a vocal performance thick with raw passion and sounding just beautiful, especially when teamed up with Kurt Kansley’s Coalhouse, who plays the shift to a darker tone excellently. Louisa Lydell as Mother also delivers the good as the upper-class woman who is liberated by the changes that happen in her life and relishes the chance to let her strong voice fill the room, again complemented well by her male counterpart, in this case Alexander Evans. There was a nicely quirky relationship that built up between John Barr’s kindly Tateh, determined to make it somehow, and Judith Paris’ strident activist Emma, both singing well as did indeed the whole cast.
Employing such a huge cast in such a small space however, does result in some awkward bits of crowding and poor blocking: too often my view of climactic moments was obscured by the backs of ensemble members especially as the stage doesn’t provide enough levels to let the leads really stand out from the crowd. Space is obviously limited but it did really hamper some key moments for me so perchance this could be looked at before opening night? And though I could see the logic behind the changing silhouette-based set design, I didn’t feel it had quite enough polish to be as effective as it needed to be.
Stephen Flaherty’s music, with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, takes in a little of the period music from which the title is taken, but also incorporates elements of cakewalk, gospel, power ballads and in one case a Chicago-aping courtroom number. Under George Dyer’s musical direction, the small band play effortlessly and the combined sound of a full-voiced ensemble in the intimate Landor frequently makes the hairs stand on end. It is interesting that three of the best musicals of recent months have all been set in a similar time period: Parade, The Hired Man and now Ragtime, none of them fulfilling the stereotypical image of musicals that many carry with them. In dealing so effectively with dramatic subjects and giving us scores rich in musical history, the case is surely made for taking fringe musical theatre more seriously.
At a time when there’s much gnashing of teeth at early closures of bigger shows like Love Never Dies, Betty Blue Eyes and Lend Me A Tenor, there’s not enough attention being paid to the smaller picture. When it comes to straight plays, a huge amount of respect is accorded to ‘smaller’ venues like the Almeida, the Bush, the Gate, even the Donmar whereas only the Menier seems to have made a similar leap on the musical side of things: it is surely time that we celebrated, and respected, theatres like the Union and indeed the Landor much more: shows like these should not be taken for granted.