Perhaps more than any other work, that of Stephen Sondheim not excepted, Ragtime is an index of the ambition of the contemporary American musical. Composer Stephen Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and scriptwriter Terrence McNally adapted E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling 1975 novel about class, race and family in early 20th-century America more expansively and with more explicit attention to its themes than Milos Forman’s film version, yet also more engagingly and – a rare achievement – more concisely. Since its 1998 Broadway premiere it has never had a conspicuously successful revival, least of all in Britain (although a staging at the little Landor Theatre in Clapham last year was much admired), but Timothy Sheader has now made it the flagship musical production of this year’s open-air season in Regent’s Park.
The first glimpse of the set put me on my guard. Sheader enjoys commissioning stage designs that are radically at odds with the bucolic serenity of the Open Air Theatre; this time, designer Jon Bausor has constructed a derelict concrete hummock filled with much of the detritus of the last century or so of Americana. A crass Ground Zero symbolism might be intended, but as the cast gradually shift from contemporary working-class clothing to period costumes for the principal action, the threat of such tub-thumping recedes. Besides, this is already a piece whose emblematic characters include J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford and Harry Houdini (who, in the person of Stephane Anelli, escapes from a straitjacket while hanging by his feet from the real, large crane that towers over the stage).
The main action weaves among three families, one WASP, one black, one Latvian-Jewish immigrant. The opportunities offered by the US and its sometimes ruthless racism sound equally strongly, and with as much relevance to today. As bigoted small-town firemen made monkey noises at ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr, I was reminded of a news story that had broken barely hours earlier reporting that such hideous mockery is still common among football crowds in Euro 2012 co-host Ukraine.
As regards Flaherty’s show-stopping numbers, too, the press-night audience seemed (wrongly, in my view) much more restrained in their reception for Coalhouse (Rolan Bell)’s fervent “Make Them Hear You” than for Mother (Rosalie Craig)’s rather bellowy, more personal than political “Back to Before”. But this is a production that overall matches its material in scope and audacity, and pretty much in success as well.