Left – Mackenzie Dunn. Cover – Chloe Zuel and Kurt Kansley. Photos – Jeff Busby.
The original 1998 Broadway season of Ragtime at the Ford Centre for Performing Arts failed to see a return on its hefty $10 million investment allegedly due to its scale – and yet by contrast, in pulling together and drawing upon its incredible reserve of experience, dexterity and collective talents on and off the stage, without lavish adornment, The Production Company has triumphed and mounted Ragtime so effectively it’s lost nothing of its magnitude.
Based on the 1975 novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime has music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and book by Terrence McNally. Occasionally referred to as an ‘American Les Misérables,’ Ragtime is set at the promising turn of the whirling changing twentieth century and looks at the era through the lens of three different groups. The wealthy, ruling, industrial and relatively conservative white population, the African American community finding recognition and influence through its music while stepping forth toward justice and equality and America’s newest arrivals at the time, Eastern European immigrant communities full of hope and vision of the new world beyond the scrutiny of Ellis Island. The intersection of these groups plays out across real and fictious events and incorporates historical figures of the day such as JP Morgan, Harry Houdini and Henry Ford. The tale is complex, joyful, tragic but ultimately incredibly uplifting.
With cleverly crafted narrative driving direction from Roger Hodgman and wonderfully era capturing choreography from Dana Jolly, the epic nature of this musical has been honoured and celebrated. With the simplest of structures creating a versatile playing space, set designer Christina Smith cleverly generates mood and scene with evocative imagery and photography displayed on a stage filling screen while Isaac Lummis’ gorgeous costumes guide us to define character and tribe as complexity unfolds.
This is a seriously big show requiring a huge cast not only to cover the comings and goings of an array of wonderful cameo roles but to also add might to the three distinct groups and vocal depth to exhilarating ensemble numbers. The Production Company and its creative team have genuinely assembled a passionate and committed showcase rich and abundant in astonishing talent. With a cast this big and indeed this good I risk running out of space and superlatives doing them justice and so a summary. The show’s connective linchpin and woman finding her changing and rightful place in the world, Georgina Hopson as Mother conveys depth and decency and wholeheartedly deserves the thunderous adulation particularly for her Act Two belter ‘Back to Before.’ Kurt Kansley brings a stoic softness to Coalhouse Walker JR and coupled with his powerful voice and presence conjures wrenching empathy for his character’s journey. Chloé Zuel was gutsy and captivating as Sarah offering heartbreak and joy with her beautiful voice. As Tateh, Alexander Lewis was outstanding. Mesmerising as an actor and singer, this was a gifted considered portrayal of pride, determination and fatherly love. Ragtime is full of wonderful cameo moments and of particular note are Mackenzie Dunn as Evelyn Nesbit and as the humorous abundantly likable political activist Emma Goldman, Sage Douglas is quite fabulous. For sheer vocal joy, Ruva Ngwenya in the closing number of Act One is leap to your feet inspiring.
Post show commentary from the companies’ indefatigable collective of producers revealed that The Production Company has held the rights to Ragtime for some years – with America feeling less and less like a place one might wish to visit let alone migrate to, it’s a fascinating watch to look back to a different time for that country. Equally noted are modern parallels as Australia comes under increasing microscope for its regard and treatment of those seeking safety on our shores. With those considerations in view, The Production Company’s choice to hold off staging this epic musical until now feels timely in its call to each of us for some introspective thought about justice and indeed how we regard those in need.
As its final show in our gorgeous State Theatre, The Production Company offers Melbourne a truly wonderful and benevolent parting gift in Ragtime. Beguiling both its characters and its audience alike with beautiful music, this is a criminally brief run of a slick and emotionally charged show that feels sumptuous, impossibly vast and simultaneously uplifting in its heartbreak. Please please go.
The Production Company presents
based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow | music Stephen Flaherty | lyrics Lynn Ahrens | book Terrence McNally
Director Roger Hodgman
Venue: State Theatre | Arts Centre Melbourne VIC
Dates: 2 – 10 November 2019
Tickets: $50 – $150