Theatre review: Ragtime

An ambitious and exhausting production


I last saw this musical, in 2003, in the West End with Maria Friedman playing the matriarch of a wealthy WASP family who adopts an abandoned African-American baby and later marries a Jewish immigrant who becomes an early film director and mogul.

Based on E. L. Doctorow's epic novel, which follows the fortunes of three families - white, black and Jewish - the show seemed then a heartfelt if over-earnest account of the civil rights and immigrant struggles that, to misquote a favourite phrase of one of the American presidential candidates, made America great.

It came across as a tribute to the fights that no longer needed to be fought.

But in today's America of innocent black people being shot in the streets and, in Trump, a presidential hopeful who apparently sees immigration as a threat to the American way of life.

Yet, skilled though director Thom Southerland is, his ambitious and I'm afraid exhausting production, fails to find nuance in composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens's score. The songs - all 30 of them! - are generally sung by this talented instrument-playing cast at full throttle throughout.

If a number starts delicately you can pretty sure it will end up in full anthemic volume. The audience feels bludgeoned.

Still, the performances are committed, the musicianship impressive, the message unhappily very relevant, even if nearly three hours of crescendo leaves you shell-shocked.

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