Great excitement in the theatre community awaited last Saturday’s Australian premiere of the Broadway musical Ragtime, and we weren’t disappointed. As the final show for The Production Company in the State Theatre, as this venue closes for long term renovation next year, this is a fine note to finish twenty-one wonderful years of their State Theatre productions.
The story is set in the Scott Joplin jazz era of early 1920s New York, and much of the music reflects that great composer. We meet three different ethnic groups, black Americans, pianist Coalhouse Walker Junior (Kurt Kansley), his estranged girlfriend Sarah (Chloe Zuel), a well-off white American family simply known as Father (Adam Murphy), Mother (Georgina Hopson), and their son Little Boy (Kempton Malone), and a Jewish immigrant father Tateh (Alexander Lewis) with his daughter Little Girl (Summer Hamilton.)
The families intersect when Mother takes pity on Sarah who is evicted and homeless, and in a bold move disapproved by Father, she takes in mother and child. Also in that household are Younger Brother (Finn Alexander) and Grandfather (John McTernan). So there are many different opinions about what Mother has done, and much wisdom and humour comes from comments by Grandfather and Little Boy – veteran McTernan is in fine form and young Kempton Maloney has natural stage charisma.
Meanwhile, we see the racism that musician Coalhouse is subjected to, which he admirably tries to ignore at first, and, after much wooing, he does win Sarah back. However, this is not a fairy story and it doesn’t end there. Artist Tateh is trying hard to make a living and draws strength from unionist Emma Goldman (Sage Douglas), one of several real life characters in Ragtime, also including Anton Berezin as financier JP Morgan and John O’May as Henry Ford.
Each group intersects with the others, and for two of the three groups there are positive endings. However, this is not so for Coalhouse and Sarah, but it’s through their struggles and suffering that the other characters learn and become better and kinder people.
The music, by composers of Seussical and Anastasia, Lynne Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, is wonderful, and you will be humming it for a long time as you leave the theatre. Director Roger Hodgman has wanted to direct Ragtime since he first saw the try-out season in Toronto in 1997 and he does a sterling job. The action is enhanced by designer Christina Smith’s excellent projections of New York in the early 20th century. Conductor Guy Noble leads a fine ensemble of musicians, and choreography by Dana Jolly is a perfect fit for the era, as are the costumes by Isaac Lumis.
Performances are uniformly good, but the standouts for me were Kurt Kansley as Coalhouse, a role he played on the West End in 2012, Georgina Hopson’s charming characterisation and rich voice as Mother and Alexander Lewis’s glorious tenor as Tateh. And you could have heard a pin drop during Chloe Zuel’s beautiful rendition of the ballad “Your Daddy’s Son”.
So, apart from the catchy ragtime score, what is the power of this absorbing musical? The best explanation comes from Terrence McNally, who adapted the book from the original novel by E.L. Dogtorow: “I think theatre teaches us who we are, and what our society is, where we are going … plays can provide a forum for the ideas and feelings that can lead a society to decide to heal and change itself.”
A timeless message for us all, but you need to be quick to catch this terrific production as it ends next Sunday, November 10.
Julie Houghton reviewed “Ragtime” presented by The Production Company at Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre on November 2, 2019.