By Taylor Kendal
The Production Company has been a staple of theatre in Melbourne for 21 years now, and is a beloved part of the rich tapestry of culture in our city, bringing 65 musicals to the stage in this time. In September of this year, it was announced that their final production will be staged in May 2020. However, to round out their 2019 season, and their final performance at the State Theatre at Arts Centre Melbourne (which will soon be undergoing renovations), the Melbourne stage has been blessed with the Australian Premiere of arguably one of the most beloved pieces of 20th century theatre, Ragtime.
Based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime is the story of change at the turning of a new century and the music that helped define the lives of those living in it, and the seemingly unattainable idea of the American Dream and those who seek it. The story takes place in New York, and three vastly different facets of society trying to find their way in the changing times; the rich white upper-class, the African-American community in Harlem and the European immigrants seeking a new life on American soil. Supporting these communities are the likes of historical figures such as Harry Houdini, anarchist Emma Goldman and Booker T. Washington, all representing a facet of these broken societies and how they can pave their own way in the world as those decide whether they are running towards change, or running away from it.
At the centre of the story, three seemingly separate and unfamiliar tales are told: the lives of New Rochelle suburbanites, simply known as Mother, Father and their family; Ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker Jr and his love, Sarah; and struggling immigrant artist Tateh and his young daughter. Though it seems like these characters have very little in common, their lives entwine against a backdrop of change, hope and ragtime music to change the very course of life forever.
With such an ambitious and immensely powerful show, the creative team have done wonders in creating a historically accurate depiction of the time. Spectacular costumes depicting the class differences; the rich in traditional white lace and linen, the African American community in their rich colours of purples and pinks, and the immigrants in their darkened rags and humbled wears must be applauded, thanks to costume designer Isaac Lummis. The set is simple, the band on stage hidden by some scaffolding, with the scene transitions depicted with black and white images on a screen behind, it’s simply breathtaking.
The heart of Ragtime, of course is the music. An era where music can quite literally take hold of you and drive your very soul in many ways, it proves to be a vital pulse throughout the show. With highly emotive and rich music and lyrics from Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and a band expertly lead by Guy Nobel, the music is a character in itself, weaving through the lives of these characters, bringing them to life and truly showing the all encompassing power of music.
Among the seemingly breezy notes of Ragtime, the show deals with some very heavy social issues, many of which are still painfully relevant today, that are handled with grace and extraordinarily passionate portrayals from the cast. Themes ranging from racial injustice and violence, immigration, exploitation of workers’ rights, sexism within the home and the idea that change can come so swiftly and shake up the very fabric of society are stunningly brought to life by these talented professionals. The search for the American dream in all manners of life, those coming to America and those seeking a better life, and the cruel realities that can make one become disillusioned remain steady throughout. The use of hateful (and unfortunately historically accurate) language is kept within the script to add the full impact and brutal intensity of life in that time, and was met with horror and audible gasps from the entire audience, which truly speaks volumes about the morals of the story.
Kurt Kansley’s portrayal of Coalhouse Walker Jr is unparalleled, his voice is melodic and captivating, and he is as charismatic and smooth as the music his character plays. The transition of character throughout the show is flawless and honest, and brought a tear to many an eye.
Chloe Zuel’s Sarah is the personification of innocence and naivety of a woman in love, and delivers a haunting and powerful rendition of the beloved ‘Your Daddy’s Son’, commanding the stage with her portrayal of a mother’s fear and anguish in uncertain times.
A coveted role for many women, Georgina Hopson’s Mother is mesmerising, and her journey as a devoted wife and mother on the cusp of change and longing for something more speaks to the soul. Her performance of ‘Back to Before’ captures every emotion of the character in the very sense of the word, and has the audience by her side, begging for her success. It is truly a beautiful performance.
Alexander Lewis brings the character of Tateh to life in the most spectacular of ways. His talent in his vocals portraying the love and desperation to find a better life in America for him and his daughter are both heartbreaking and uplifting. The personification of trying to seek out the American dream in the realest sense.
The cast as a whole moves like a well oiled machine, much like the Model T that Henry Ford exhibits in song. Their dedication to their roles and the smooth transition of change for the characters seems effortless. Every cast member on stage, both veteran performers and young talent, proves that they are worth their salt in creating real, honest portrayals of life at the turn of the century, and the struggles that they faced, and each and every one deserved the standing ovation that they received at curtain call.
Frankly, I could spend too much time talking about the songs and the performances that have captured my heart so incredibly, but I feel as though I would fail to do it justice. Playing a strictly limited season until November 10, believe me when I say, you do not want to miss your chance to experience the magic that is Ragtime.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.