Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Review: Ragtime 2012 Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

Monday 28th May 2012
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London

is a special musical. Executed well, it's music (Stephen Flaherty) and message (book by Terrence McNally) about racial harmony stay with you long after the curtain. There was no curtain in Regent's Park Open Air Theatre (rather, a blackout in the park) but Ragtime still hit the spot, boosted by its courageous attempt at a post-modern setting. Having a canopy of stars twinkle above your head during the show didn't hurt, either.

Originally set in America at the turn of the Twentieth Century, the Open Air production takes place in a disturbingly present-day, decrepit pocket of New York City amidst what seems to be the rubble remains of a bombed building. When the audience take their seats, performers are lurking around its dusty remains. If it were not for their aggrieved and vacant expressions, the performers are indistinguishable from the audience by their modern dress. A large banner with US President Barack Obama’s face draws focus and suggests we are sitting in a post-post-Twin Towers era perhaps years into the future when “Yes We Can” Obama failed to “Change” America for the better.

From that moment onwards, the production plays with the notion of time and space as the cast transform from our contemporaries to our ancestors of decades past in period costume. The juxtaposition suggests the old adage that times have changed but things are very much the same. We may no longer live in a black/white segregated world but racial barriers and racial-driven hatred is still present in society. Discourse surrounding Muslims in the Western media spring to mind.

The irony is strongest during "Wheels of a Dream" where segregated black couple Coalhouse and Sarah dream up the unlimited possibilities for their infant son in this new America, the "land of possibilities". Coalhouse Junior could go to school, learn to read, become a musician, or even the President of the United States - who so happens to be their poster backdrop. The writing, literally, is on the wall. The American Dream is hypothetically within their reach but the reality of America's broken promises continually stifles their hopes as the couple are continually discriminated against, even in simple tasks like buying a car.

The cast were strong overall. Mother (Rosalie Craig) and Tateh (John Marquez) shone in their leading roles particularly with their moving rendition of "Our Children", a highlight of the show. Australian-born and newly London-based Tamsin Carroll is a standout as famous anarchist Emma Goldman, and Harry Hepple as Younger Brother has a divine voice. Katie Brayben’s scandalous Evelyn Nesbit is also a delight. Rolan Bell (Coalhouse Walker) and Claudia Kariuki (Sarah), however, pushed too hard. There were excited murmurs in the audience at the beginning of the heart-breaking “Your Daddy’s Son,” but Kariuki lacked the storytelling and vocal chops to convey Sarah's all-consuming grief. Bell came out all guns blazing but lacked dynamics in his choices. Amidst the letdown, Craig’s “Back to Before” was the show-stopper that the audience was waiting for.

Open Air's Ragtime offers a visual, emotional and sensory treat. If you have good weather, the setting is enchanting. Better still, the post-modern contextual setting is provocative and, like the best of theatre, challenges the audience to leave the theatre with an open mind and a kind heart.

Tickets at