With The Hollow Crown and Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony giving British audiences the chances for two very different examinations of the national character, it seems almost unpatriotic to be reviewing Regent Park Open Air Theatre’s production of Ragtime – a musical that places itself firmly within that staple of American drama; the great American narrative.
Adapted from E.L Doctorow’s mid-seventies novel, Ragtime offers a panoramic view across early-20th century America. Blending fact and fiction, the musical weaves a loose narrative through the eyes of three rather generic stock characters; the middle-class housewife whose values are transformed through a life changing event, the eternally-optimistic immigrant who only cares about making a life for his daughter and the black musician struggling against institutional racism.
Under Timothy Sheader, the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has taken home the award for ‘Best Musical Revival’ in each of the last three years. Stunning productions of Hello, Dolly!, Into the Woods and Crazy for You meant that his 2012 choice was eagerly anticipated.
Despite a reputation for bold takes on American classics, Sheader’s production of Ragtime proves itself to be a rather more awkward piece of work. The tableau approach creates an uneasy balance between fact and fiction, with key events seen through the eyes of Ragtime’s characters whilst historical figures rub shoulders with fictional creations. The plot is a fairly transparent call for social and racial equality and, originally written in the 1970’s, is clearly laudable in its aims. However for those not well-versed in early 20th century American history it was slightly frustrating for never being entirely sure which scenes were real and which imagined, which characters were based in reality and which were the authors invention.
Ragtime’s closest comparator is Gershwin’s masterpiece Porgy & Bess; both are interested in showing audiences the experiences of marginalised members of American society. However where Gershwin was able to put faith in the strength of the music and the lyrics, through songs that have become integral parts of the 20th century canon – Summertime, Ain’t Necessarily So and I Loves You Porgy – Ragtime is not able to draw from such a well. Despite fine moments the play lacks depth and delivers the narrative in a halting and didactic tone.