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A CurtainUp LondonReview

Small clear chords hung in the air like flowers. The melodies were like bouquets.
-- Younger Brother
London was meant to get the Broadway production of Ragtime several years back but some "accounting irregularities" put paid to that. But now in 2003 Londoners have the chance to hear Stephen Flaherty and Terrence McNally's wonderful musical. I was one of the fortunate few Londoners who had seen Ragtime in all its American glory at the Wolf Trap in Washington. What we have at the Piccadilly Theatre is a "no frills", simplistic production, beautifully sung and quite magnificent but without any of the American staging. Does this mean that you will be disappointed? No, not at all.

Adapted from EL Doctorow's 1975 epic novel about three families in America before the First World War, Ragtime shows us some of the elements that make up America's rich, multi-cultural society today. For the story details I refer you to Curtain Up's original review
Ragtime. The London production originated in a concert performance, which was the European premiere, at the International Music Theatre Festival, Cardiff in October 2002.

I liked the historical perspective of the musical, the inclusion of real characters such as the escapologist Harry Houdini (Samuel James), the anarchist Emma Goldman (Susie McKenna), Booker T Washington (David Durham) and "the girl on the swing" Evelyn Nesbitt (Rebecca Thornhill). My heart went out to Tateh (Graham Bickley) and his little girl (Natasha Jules Bernard/Sarah Bowling/Ruby Williams) newly arrived from Latvia, representative of many thousands of immigrants from Europe. But it is Coalhouse Walker, Jr's (Kevyn Morrow) story of racial prejudice and tragedy which dominates the storyline as do the rags, the vibrant music of the African Americans. The first scene with Coalhouse and his friends, the "Getting' Ready Rag", brings the whole show into a lively and interestingly choreographed celebration of ragtime music. The ending which neatly ties up the narrative of all three families has a degree of sentiment but we tend not to visit musical theatre for American realism.

Stephen Flaherty's music has it all, soaring anthems and pretty ballads and of course the wonderful rags. The lyrics too are intelligent and worthwhile. There are rousing, crowd pleasing, singalong numbers like "Crime of the Century", the evocative "The Night that Goldman Spoke at Union Square", "Wheels of a Dream", Coalhouse and Sarah's (Rosalind James) hope-filled duet.

The set is very plain, a backdrop of smeared glass with plain black chairs to improvise everything from train to Coalhouse's car. I have my doubts about the director allowing Coalhouse to play air piano. The choreography too is limited, except for the scenes in Coalhouse's club where the dancers give us some real excitement. The costumes are authentic but there are hardly any changes.

The performances and singing are top notch. Maria Friedman as Mother, the rich woman from New Rochelle who has the courage to defy convention. Dave Willetts as her husband, the product of his class, who becomes more tolerant in the course of Ragtime. Friedman and Willetts have excellent experience as West End leads in top musicals, Friedman in Witches of Eastwick and Chicago and Willets as only the second Jean Val Jean in Les Miserables, and Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. Kevyn Morrow came to London to play the lead in 125th Street and stays to play Coalhouse and it is very much his show. I liked too Graham Bickley's Latvian, Tateh whose artistic talent lands him a career in movies and Matthew White as Mother's Younger Brother, who is one of the characters who links the La Rochelle family politically with immigrant workers and Coalhouse's protest and musically with ragtime.

While the start of the war is not the best week to open a new musical with the drop in tourist numbers, Ragtime deserves a wide audience. It will not disappoint musically. It is booking for twelve weeks.

Ragtime-- Broadway Review

Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Terrence McNally
Based on the novel by EL Doctorow
Directed by Stafford Arima

Starring Kevyn Morrow, Maria Friedman, Dave Willetts, Graham Bickley, Matthew White, Rosalind James
With: Robert Archilbald, Hope Augustus, Kenneth Avery-Clark, Michaelia Baptiste, John Barr, Simon Bishop, Phillip Browne, M'esha Bryan, Vikki Coote, Iain Davey, David Durham, Howard Ellis, Julie Forrester, Samuel James, Susie McKenna, Mark McKerracher, Tania Newton, Terel Nugent, Vincent Pirillo, Jo Servi, Marvin Springer, Emma Jay Thomas, Rebecca Thornhill, Natasha Jules Bernard, Sarah Bowling, Thomas Brown-Lowe, Jordan Calvert, Matthew Protheroe, Ruby Williams, Milan Cato, Max Mensah
Designer: Robert Jones
Musical Staging: Candace Jennings
Lighting Designer: Howard Harrison
Musical Director: Chris Walker
Musical Supervisor and Arranger: Sheilah Walker
Orchestrations William David Brohn
Sound: Peter Hylenski for Autograph
Running time: Three hours twenty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7369 1744
Booking to 11th June 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 21st March 2003 Performance at the Piccadilly Theatre, Denman Street London W1 (Tube Station: Piccadilly Circus)

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