If anyone can give us a great production of the 1996 musical “Ragtime,” it’s the award-winning director Timothy Sheader.
His staging at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London is a firecracker. Even his efforts don’t disguise the fact that this is an overstuffed piece without many memorable melodies.
“Ragtime”, with music by Stephen Flaherty, tells the stories of three New Yorkers. There’s upper middle-class Mother (Rosalie Craig), dignified black pianist Coalhouse Walker (Rolan Bell), and poor Jewish immigrant Tateh (John Marquez).
Their lives intersect when Coalhouse’s new car is destroyed by racist firemen. He turns terrorist in his desire for justice.
So far, so plot-driven. The problem is the distracting number of side dishes before the meat. Real historical characters, like murder suspect Evelyn Nesbit, escapologist Harry Houdini, and anarchist Emma Goldman get numbers too. Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan turn up as well.
We watch as the characters struggle to swim against endless waves of minor supporting roles. When the main protagonists get their power ballads, it’s hard to raise a flicker of empathy.
Sheader sets the period action amid images of contemporary America. There are Starbucks signs, golden arches, old fridges, worn sofas. A pile of rubble spills out of a torn Obama poster.
The cast and chorus are dressed in street wear. As the action progresses, they change into pre-World War I costume. It’s a neat idea, suggesting that the musical tells us as much about the time of its composition as now.
The choreography, by Javier de Frutos, is a delight. There are cakewalks and waltzes to accompany the ragtime and gospel numbers. There’s not a dud performer in the cast. Rolan Bell simmers as Coalhouse, and his transformation into murderer is well done. Craig and Marquez sing and act attractively.
All that energy and talent, to little effect. Rating: **.
The same could be said for Detlev Glanert’s 2006 opera “Caligula,” which has its U.K. premiere in a new production by Benedict Andrews at the Coliseum.
Baritone Peter Coleman-Wright switches between psychopathic jolliness and rage as the unpredictable Roman emperor of the title. He rapes a noble’s wife, murders his empress, arbitrarily forgives a plotter, and executes a fawning toady. He believes he has become the goddess Venus, and appears in a spangly dress.
He sings with total theatrical commitment. So do Yvonne Howard as empress-consort Caesonia, Carolyn Dobbin as the poet Scipio, and countertenor Christopher Ainslie as the henchman-slave Helicon.
They still can’t transform the leaden piece into operatic gold. Caligula starts as a psychopath and ends it as one. None of the other characters has enough weight to balance him.
Glanert’s style is often atonal, with some resolutions into major chords. Some scenes are ear-grabbing. Others feel like note-spinning, without tension to underpin them.
Director Benedict Andrews sets his modern-dress production among the terraces of a sports stadium. At first it suggests the kind of military-sporting parades produced by any number of contemporary dictators. After a while, the awkwardness of the space comes to feel limiting. Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth often drowns out the singers.
Tosca has her Scarpia, Rigoletto his Duke, Violetta her Giorgio Germont. Why are so many modern composers afraid to put similar juicy conflicts at the heart of their operas? At least it would have spared us the tedium of watching a psychopath droning on for more than two hours. Rating: **.
“Ragtime” is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, Inner Circle, Regent’s Park, NW1 4NU, until Sept. 8. Information: http://www.openairtheatre.com or +44-844-826-4242.
“Caligula” is in repertoire at English National Opera, London Coliseum, St. Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4ES, until June 14. Information: http://www.eno.org, +44-20-7845-9300.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
Muse highlights include: Lewis Lapham on history, Zinta Lundborg’s New York weekend.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)