Finding myself once again at the Bridewell Theatre, home of amateur theatre group SEDOS, I know I am in for a treat. This year bringing us Ragtime, a musical set at the turn of the 20th century. It deals with the ever-timely themes of class, race and immigration played out under the looming shadows of mass-industrialization and the impending First World War. This Ahrens & Flaherty collaboration has everything a true musical theatre buff could wish for. A sumptuous sung-through score that echoes (or in my opinion, eclipses) the bombast of some West-End favourites, a twisting and turning plot scattered with love and pain and plenty of opportunities for magnificent visuals. Despite the ever-present limitations that amateur groups must suffer SEDOS does justice to each element bringing their own homegrown spin that only serves to heighten the enjoyment.
Ragtime is a must see and you never know when you might have the opportunity again.
For those unfamiliar with Ragtime (as you might be, it has only enjoyed two London runs - both limited) it is the coming together of three story arcs. A well-to-do family from the New York state picket-fenced suburbs; an estranged black couple from Harlem and a father-daughter pair recently emigrated from Latvia, living in the squalored tenements of Lower East Side. Ragtime is particularly impressive in its thorough narrative arch for almost every character; nothing feels rushed or unresolved at close. It weaves a truly fascinating arc that, especially for any history-buffs out there, brings a wonderful perspective to an oft-overlooked era just pre-war.
Ragtime, however, is also a very tricky musical to stage and had a famously expensive debut run on Broadway. The score is exacting and the vocal parts a bugger to get perfect, with a broad orchestration that requires immense talent from its conductor and orchestrator. In all these regards incredible plaudits must go to the production team behind this production at SEDOS. The sounds that the ensemble made was, in the most literal sense of the word, incredible – especially from an amateur group who, one assumes, have day jobs to attend to. Every time a crescendo in the music hit I felt compelled to just close my eyes and let the beautiful harmonies wash over me. Musical director, and conductor, Ryan Macauley should feel very proud of himself for his leadership of this talented bunch of singers and musicians.
SEDOS continue to be brilliantly ingenious with their use of limited space, and limited budget, in creating the set and staging. A production perhaps inspired by the 2016 Charring Cross run, the use of levels and stage delineation is so important if you don’t have a multi-million pound budget and they got it spot on.
As for the cast; a delight across the board. I feel the need to say it again because the sound they made as one was incredible. They were unbelievable for a group of that size, with a mixture of semi-professional and amateur backgrounds. Stand out vocal performances came from Coalhouse Walker Jr (Jonathon Grant) whose honeyed vocals had the audience on the hook from the first note. Equally Sarah’s (Sara Rajeswaran) deep belt seemed to shake the ground under which we sat. Younger Brother (Robert J. Stanex) showed immense acting chops in his characterisation of the nervy young man turned disenfranchised rebel. Even in a supporting role Harry Houdini (Daryl Armstrong) dazzled as one of those stage performers who just brings energy and light to ever second on stage. The show stealer in my book though was Tateh (Rob Archibald - although he might be cheating as he took the stage professionally in this role in 2003). His performance was everything you could ever want from the role. He took a character that sometimes shines a little dim next to the vocal powerhouse performances from characters Coalhouse, Sarah and Mother and turned the whole thing into his own. His misery in the worst moments to his gleaming energy in the best moments took the whole audience along for the ride with him.
There is too much good about this production to sum it all up in one short review but if you are a fan of the bombastic in musical theatre Ragtime is a must see and you never know when you might have the opportunity again with such a rarely performed work. SEDOS have bravely taken a risk on this one and it has paid off in spades. An accomplished piece of theatre executed by an accomplished group of peoples whose love of the art shines through in everything they do.