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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Ragtime
Landor Theatre   Autumn 2011

The best American musical of the 1990s is given as fine a production as you could ask for, and the fact that it's in a 60-seat above-a-pub fringe theatre would be remarkable were it not the Landor, which has a long record of taking on and succeeding at musicals that would seem beyond its means. 

Based on E. L. Doctorow's novel, the musical follows three sets of characters in the early Twentieth Century - a rich WASP family, an African-American musician and his woman, and a Jewish immigrant and his daughter – as their lives connect and also cross those of such real-life figures as Harry Houdini and Emma Goldman.

Terrence McNally's book for the musical actually improves on the novel, which is abruptly taken over by the black man's plot, by building up the others to sustain the triple action, and also clarifying the symbolic use of the historical figures.

Stephen Flaherty's music is, unsurprisingly, ragtime-based, and if he relies on variations on a single basic melody for several songs, he does ring evocative variations on it, nicely supporting Lynn Ahrens' simple lyrics.

Simplicity is the key to much of the musical's emotional power as it evokes a period in which love, uncomplicated patriotism and unfeigned belief in honour could be openly expressed, and you are likely to surprise yourself by becoming misty-eyed at the purity of the emotions and the beauty of their expression. 

Each of the leading roles requires a sensitive actor as well as skilled singer, and it is a testament as to how much rich talent there is out there, bubbling just under the West End star level, that director Robert McWhir has assembled a cast without a single weak link. 

As Coalhouse Walker, the black man who undergoes one too many racial insults and turns revolutionary, Kurt Kansley conveys a quiet coiled-spring power that gives believability to both his quiet expressions of love and his threats of violence.

Louisa Lydell invests Mother, the rich white woman, with an inherent dignity and strength that let us sense even before the character does how well on the road to emancipation she is. 

And John Barr defines the immigrant Tateh with an iron determination that carries him unwaveringly toward the American Dream. 

There is strong support as well by Judith Paris as Emma Goldman, Rosalind James as Sarah and David McMullan as Younger Brother – and indeed by the whole large cast, most of them doubling and tripling small roles and chorus backup.

Director McWhir not only draws fine performances from everyone but, along with choreographer Matthew Gould, repeatedly moves more than twenty people around a postage-stamp-sized stage creating beautiful and moving stage pictures without a hint of a misstep.

In an ideal world this remarkable production would transfer after its one-month run at the Landor; in the likelihood that it does not, I urge you to see it there.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Ragtime - Landor 2011

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