Is this the right time for a London “Ragtime”? That’s the question hanging over the European commercial preem of the 1998 Broadway show that has arrived on the West End following a successful concert performance last fall in Wales as part of the Cardiff musical theater fest. “Ragtime” was talked about for a London run several years back that got scratched at the time, with more than one industry professional arguing the musicalization of the E.L. Doctorow novel was too American to sustain a bullish British stand. (Perhaps so, given the stony-faced opening night response to “What a Game,” the show’s second act paean to baseball.)
A season or two (and change of producers) later, “Ragtime” has reached London at the very moment that its hymn to the various possibilities of America could well come to haunt it, even without Harry Houdini (Samuel James) on hand in the second act to signal a world “already at war.” With its rich score well served by a terrific onstage band — the superb musical director is Chris Walker — giving Stafford Arima’s staging the flavor of a “Chicago”-style concert, this musical surely will test the British appetite for original songs rather than pre-digested components of the Abba/Queen/Madness back catalog. But aural accomplishments may not be enough for a show rooted in an American dream on which current events have thrown a damper, especially at a time when a first-act reference to “the sound of distant thunder” seems all too scarily real.
At its best, Arima’s reconsideration of “Ragtime” strips away some of the crippling self-importance that attached itself to Frank Galati’s gargantuan Broadway venture, an effort to write for the late 20th century a bona fide American epic on the order of “Show Boat” from the same century’s early years. (It’s no accident that “Ragtime” had the same Broadway producer, Garth Drabinsky, as Broadway’s most recent “Show Boat.”) As finally seen in London, “Ragtime” emerges even more clearly as an attempt to reclaim for the American repertoire the kind of through-sung, historically weighty extravaganza that had become the province of the Brits in the 1980s and beyond.
Melding fact and fiction, some sketchily realized personages from the past (Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington) with a cross-section of invented archetypes (the generically named Mother among them), “Ragtime” serves up a restless portrait of a populace not immune to bigotry or prejudice and yet in perpetual thrall to “the music of something beginning” — a nation struggling to know itself.
The three strands of the complex narrative — the blacks, the prosperous whites and the impoverished immigrant Jews — are brilliantly set forth in the opening number, the title song still the high point of an always impressive Stephen Flaherty score even when Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics stumble along with Terrence McNally’s book into bathos. (“Oh God!” snapped a colleague, alta voce, at one slice of treacle too many near the end.)
Until that moment when the second act slides irrevocably into theater that is good for you, the London company honors the yearning, questing strains of a crescendo-heavy score that is savvy enough to lower the volume (the plaintive “New Music,” for instance, rendingly led here by Dave Willetts as the pioneering Father) until the anthems (“Make Them Hear You”) take over later on. If ever a show could have used a dose of the irony the British are always insisting America does not possess, “Ragtime” is the one.
The Broadway production didn’t stint on any scenic embellishment necessary (a Model T car, for starters) to animate the stage, and some may chafe this time around at a spare, stripped-down design from Robert Jones (“Dance of Death”) that makes do with chairs and panels of frosted glass against which the company maneuvers about the stage like so many commuters at rush hour. But the idea, clearly, is to let the material ring out unencumbered, even if the net result is to make one aware of just how crucially lacking in levity — the “Chicago”-esque tale of Evelyn Nesbit (a delightful Rebecca Thornhill) notwithstanding — “Ragtime” often is.
Luckily, the vocal demands are firmly if sometimes hammily met by a more than solid cast, many of whom took the same roles last October in Cardiff. While the acting varies (Emma Jay Thomas’s Sarah, the Audra McDonald role, is especially shrill), the singing is consistently spot-on, with two of the six above-the-title leads towering above the rest. As Coalhouse Walker Jr., the Harlem pianist fatally drawn into the downward pull of violence, Kevyn Morrow creates a flesh-and-blood character, not an iconically conceived Victim. And Maria Friedman’s glowingly performed Mother rises above the prevailing earnestness to embody the fundamental beneficence of a country struggling to do right in a show that can hardly be blamed if the timing of its belated arrival in London turns out to be wrong.