Students on the Musical Theatre course at The Arden School of Theatre have once again proved their worth. A highly creditable and entertaining - as well as thought-provoking - production of Flaherty, Ahrens and McNally's potent Musical, Ragtime.
It is a very powerful and emotive fictional story very cleverly interwoven with actual historical prominent people of the day figuring quite heavily into the narrative too. In fact there are actually three separate stories which have, by the end of the Musical become only one as their individual lives mingle and become inseparable.
The set, designed by Cassius Murray, gave us an omnipresent garden with bench on stage left, whilst there was a large platform and walkway stage right, which, at the beginning, represented the side of an ocean liner. At the rear of the stage and either side of a swing was the band, and on the main forestage the floor became a screen for projecting topical and relevant images to increase our understanding and enjoyment of the proceedings. These images worked wonderfully - especially the original archive photos. I am glad I sat where I did though; had I have been any nearer the front I doubt I would have seen these images as clearly. However, the final image shown - perhaps the most important one of them all in terms of continuing the narrative - the one which showed the title and photos of the film of the children from all backgrounds playing together; was hidden from the audience's view completely by the actors standing directly in front if it!
Two further comments I would make about the set is that having seen your last Musical, Fame, in the same theatre, I know that there is a platform at the back of the stage and high above the stage where the band could have played. I didn't understand why they were placed on the stage taking up so much room. Further, the large black platform was also something of an eyesore. It was so seldom used and was far too big for its purpose. There was a large cast, especially when all the three groups came on stage together, and moving the band and making more space in general would have been preferable surely.
I liked the costumes and the choice of colours was lovely. They all looked authentic; except perhaps for the boys wearing modern collars and ties, but I can overlook that. However, I have been trying to do some little research into the policeman, and I cannot find anything anywhere which gives me a conclusive answer to this; but seeing a British policeman in a British police uniform didn't feel right, especially when he spoke with a British accent too. It's a minor point, but it bothered me.
The acting and singing was, generally, extremely good, and of the high standard I have now come to expect from these students. The chorus numbers were undoubtedly the best though. It is highly emotive music and you cannot help finding a lump in your throat with this Musical - you're simply not human if you don't - and bearing in mind that these performers are still students, (max age 21), and simply don't have the maturity and experience of years to bring out fully-rounded characterisations, they still managed to convince me and the rest of the audience with the sincerity and earnestness of their portrayals.
As you would have hoped, the main principals were excellently chosen. The two absolute stand-out performances for me were Thomas Kuzmar, playing the Latvian Jewish refugee, Taleh; and Alex Okoampa, playing ragtime pianist turned revengeful murderer, Coalhouse Walker Jr.
I have to admit that I wasn't too sure about Mother ( Julia Maden ) at first; but she warmed to me the more the show progressed and I was, by the end of it, totally convinced. I think this is because her first song and entrance was rather insipid, and the tech department was also having some issues with crackling mics at that point too, which didn't help.
Actually, whilst I am writing about mics then the levels were not right. I had great difficulty hearing any dialogue that was spoken during songs, and Emma Goldman was far too quiet all the way through.
Special mention should be made of a couple of smaller roles, which I imagine would normally go unmentioned in reviews; however, I noticed your performances and enjoyed them greatly. These were Lucy Robins as the merry murderess turned Vaudeville star [inspiration for Kander and Ebbs' famous Musical ‘Chicago’] Evelyn Nesbit, and one of the chorus who was also a showgirl, but sadly cannot credit her with a name. Long brown hair and quite thin if that helps! The reason I mention her is that she stood out in amongst the chorus and was always absolutely 'in the moment' as we say.
The directing, by Tim Flavin, was secure and made certain that he was not asking anything from the cast that they were not completely at ease with. This made the directing quite safe and rather static. Considering the themes of the Musical, and the rousing anarchistic and even violent nature of the characters and music, the directing became too pedestrian. The dances, of which there were far too few, were unexciting, and no-one ever moved faster than a walk.
I would also have liked to have seen the baby grow too! A 5 or 6 month old baby is much larger than a newborn one, and surely by the end of the Musical, which ends some years later, then not only the black baby but all the cast should have aged somewhat which only noticeably happened with The Girl. Everyone else remained the same.
It was a very difficult and rather brave choice of show. Personally I didn't find it as raw, as pulsing and therefore as exciting as Fame. This is a much more mature show which requires more mature actors, and it really didn't suit the young energetic talent available. However, that being said, congratulations to everyone for a very enjoyable and impassioned rendition of a Musical that up until yesterday I had only heard the music of and never seen staged. I look forward to seeing your next production whatever that will be.
Reviewer: Mark Dee
Reviewed: 25th May 2016