Ragtime review by Kelly-Louise Austin

****.5 stars

The Production Company’s Australian Premier of the award-winning musical Ragtime opened with a bang on Saturday night at The State Theatre.

The musical, which opened on Broadway in 1998, features music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and a book by Terrence McNally. It is based on the 1975 novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow.

Ragtime is a heart wrenching story set in early 20th century USA, with three distinct groups driving the tale. The upper class wealthy suburban family lead by the strong, stanch and beautiful of heart Mother, the African Americans lead by Coalhouse Walker Jr, a Ragtime Musician from Harlem, and the poor, struggling Eastern European Immigrants introduced to us by the devoted Tatah and his little girl. These fictitious characters are intertwined with historical figures familiar to all of us including Booker T Washington (Joti Gore), Harry Houdini (Louis Lucente), J.P. Morgan (Anton Berezin) and Henry Ford (John O’May).

The opening number, Ragtime, introduces us to these groups and their stories, The number is bright, it fills the incredibly simple yet effective set with colour and sound and movement, and leaves the audience in absolutely no doubt that they are about to witness something incredibly special.

Father leaves Mother to go away for work for a year. We are introduced to Father as an unemotional, strong man who cares for his family, even if he struggles to show it. Portrayed by Adam Murphy, he is hard to like, but we gradually see his heart and mind change with the times as the show progresses. Murphy has a stunning voice and stalwart stage presence, playing the nuances of this character to perfection.

We soon meet Tateh and his Little Girl for the first time. They have just arrived in America with high hopes for a better future. Tateh soon sets up shop with a cart creating Silhouette portraits and tells us of his dreams in the rousing “Success”. Tateh, and his bigger than life personality that carries him literally from rags to riches, is played by Alexander Lewis. Lewis brings us from the lowest point of Tateh’s life, arriving in America with nothing but the clothes on his back, through discovering that perhaps his hopes and dreams are unachievable, through to the highs of quite accidentally discovering a new, and extremely profitable career with the most incredible empathy, skill, wonderful comic timing and soaring vocals, and has us all wishing for his happy ending. Without a doubt, his number “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay Inc is the upbeat highlight of Act 2.

Sarah, a young African American woman who abandons her baby after running from her partner Coalhouse Walker Jr when he does her wrong, is taken in by Mother and the rest of the family. We learn of her plight in the epic “Your Daddy’s Son’’, which was performed by Chloe Zeul so incredibly beautifully. Whilst she plays Sarah with subtlety, one can’t help but feel a lack of genuine Chemistry between herself and Coalhouse, played by Kurt Kansley.

Coalhouse begins to visit Sarah in his new Model T Ford every week in the hopes of winning her affections back. As Coalhouse, Kansley has an intimidating stage presence, and holds strong in this incredibly demanding role. At times his vocals seemed weak against some of the other cast. However, his pain and suffering, his tenacity in standing up for what is right and just until the bitter end through his overwhelming grief was so incredibly real and raw, showing us just what a skillful actor he is.

But without a doubt, the absolute star of this show is Mother. Georgina Hopson shines bright from the very first second she walks onto the stage. She brings the most incredible softness to Mother, who by rights should have become quite hard from the life that she has lived. Her love for her son and her family is clear, and her devotion to Sarah’s abandoned baby is selfless and deep. Hopson’s voice is incredible, lyrical and emotive, every moment is a thing of beauty but her rendition of “Back to Before” was quite literally showstopping, with the applause ringing long after the final notes had drifted into the rafters.

Other highlights within this incredibly cohesive cast were Mackenzie Dunn as the enchanting and controversial Evelyn Nesbit; Sage Douglas as Emma Goldman, Anarchist Political Rights Activist;  and Finn Alexander as the awkward and intense Younger Brother who is persistent in standing up for what he believes is right paired with a knack for blowing things up. Also, keep an eye out for the sweetest cast member who makes an appearance right before the end.

Dana Jolly’s Choreography is sublime, it fills the space so beautifully and moves us seamlessly through the different spaces, from a ragtime bar in Harlem to the seaside in Atlantic City. This is highlighted with the hilariously effective number “What a Game”, showcasing the male ensemble with panache.

Musical Director Guy Noble conducts the stellar orchestra, playing each moment of the magnificent score with passion and skill. Paired with the faultless direction of Roger Hodgman, who shows a clear passion for this piece, and it is a formidable production team who produce absolute magic.

This is a show that is not to be missed, the standing ovation that erupted through the entire theatre before the bows even commenced is testament to this. Get tickets however you can. Ragtime will take you to the highest heights and pull you back down with a thud, it will break your heart and make you smile. It is the must-see musical in Melbourne of 2019.

Ragtime is on at The State Theatre from 2 – 10 November. For tickets please go to https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2019/seasons/tpc/ragtime

 

-performances: 4.5
– costumes: 4.5
– sets: 4.5
– lighting: 4.5
– sound: 4.5
– direction: 4.5
– choreography: 4.5
– musical direction: 4.5
– stage management: 4.5

Note regarding language
The Production Company acknowledges that some of the language which was current in early 20th Century America and is part of this musical may cause offence. However, given that Ragtime deals with race relations, the company has chosen not to censor the use of this language.

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