Friday 26 August 2022

Ragtime - Review

Alleyn's School, London


Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Terrence McNally
Directed by Hannah Chissick

Zaya Tserenbat and company

In a bold production that encompasses moments of musical theatre genius, the National Youth Music Theatre is staging Ragtime for three days only at London’s Alleyn's School. Flaherty and Ahrens' canvas of the United States at the turn of the 20th century is a cleverly constructed fusion of social icons (that includes the likes of Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T Washington and Henry Ford) blended in with nameless or fictional protagonists, all of whose various stories depict the turbulence of the times of America’s famed melting pot.

Simply staged before a shredded American flag and with only suitcases for scenery to emphasise the immigrant make-up of the country’s population, Hannah Chissick allows her cast to expand the narrative based solely on their ability to sing, dance and act through song. The themes of the show are complex and its arc is broad and it is a testament to this young company that they tackle the ugliness of the tale’s racism alongside the beauty of some of its characters’ tenderness with perceptive and measured depth.

At 23, Lucy Carter who plays Mother is an NYMT veteran and her years of experience are clearly evident. Carter’s stage presence is electrifying, not just in her moments of profound compassion, but also in the steel she shows in challenging her husband’s innate racism. Carter is also gifted the show’s solo high-spot with the second act’s Back To Before, smashing it out of the park and bringing power, passion and profound emotion to the song. 

Zolani Dube plays Coalhouse Walker Jr, an African American ragtime musician whose journey drives the show’s narrative. Dube brings commitment to the role, together with masses of potential. Opposite Dube is Sarah, the woman he loves, played by Katlo Masole. In a role that is largely understated, Masole offers up a turn of assured excellence and vocal beauty as she plays her tragic character.

There are other diamonds in this cast. 12yo Laurie Jones as the Little Boy is confident and compelling, with pinpoint timing too – a rare craft to have mastered so young. Equally Sam Sayan’s Tateh and Zaya Tserenbat’s Evelyn Nesbit are very strong in their supporting roles. Tserenbat in particular, whose take on The Crime Of The Century is a joy to behold.

David Randall conducts his 22 piece orchestra with aplomb, ensuring that Stephen Flaherty’s score, itself a blend of so many different musical genres is delivered delightfully.

The NYMT has a knack of unearthing future West End stars as the list of its illustrious alumni proves. But more than just that teaching young people how to star, above all the NYMT allows its companies to discover the sheer beauty of acting together, through song. Ragtime’s first act closes with Till We Reach That Day, an absolute banger of a number that is written for a show's entire cast to perform. To see and hear this fabulous company singing as one, with power, pathos and passion is spine-tingling and stunning.

Runs until 27th August
Photo credit: Konrad Bartelski

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