Based on the novel of the same name, Ragtime follows the stories of three distinct social groups of the early 20th Century and their diverse experiences as they attempt to fulfil the all-important American Dream. The stark representation of these three groups – the ‘upper class suburbanites’, the European immigrants and the African Americans – allows for modern audiences to recognise, acknowledge and better appreciate the intensity and atrocity associated with prejudice and segregation. The message it bestows upon its audience is one of vigilance; for knowledge is power and history is our greatest teacher.
Waterdale’s production of this very rarely (at least in Australia) performed piece provided audiences with a profound and moving experience, encouraging self-reflection and a deeper understanding of the extent of society’s evolution, and the work that perhaps is still required.
Readers of Theatre People will recall the very active discussions that arose last year when Waterdale first advertised auditions for Ragtime. These comments expressed confusion and concern regarding the choice to stage a production that so heavily relied on a culturally diverse cast, with the fear that it just couldn’t be done in Melbourne. In response, Waterdale has provided an exceptionally strong and suitable cast that are truly reflective of the depicted social groups. This is a true testament to the vast array of talented individuals that call Melbourne home and I look forward to seeing more companies proudly acknowledge our city’s large and diverse talent pool in the future. Waterdale should be applauded for doing this.
The direction of this piece appeared well researched and was certainly era appropriate. It was evident that a lot of work had gone into ensuring performances were authentic and truly representative of the time and the people. Characterisation was key to evoking intended reactions from the audience and allowing for the underlying messages of the piece to shine through. The work the directors employed to see to the strength of this was obvious.
In complimenting this work, musical direction was tight and well calculated, offering the audience a cast and orchestra which married together beautifully. The wall of sound produced by the large cast in harmony together was a real treat and again, the work that had gone into this definitely shone through.
Choreography followed the old adage ‘simple, yet effective’ and allowed for the cast to truly immerse themselves into the styles of the era. Not only was the choreography time appropriate, it was also culturally appropriate and varied where required. While some of the cast were very obviously more confident in their movement than others, it was a joy to see such a committed group of performers.
The vision of the production team was, at times, well supported by the lighting design which, for the most part, worked well to encourage the audience to simply ‘feel’ what was unfolding before them. There were times when lighting choices seemed to fall a little flat or appeared not to truly reflect the emotion of the scene however, these moments were surely few and far between.
On the stage, there was painted a design that appeared to include mechanical and natural elements as a commentary on the time period. While the design was well structured, when hit with particular elements of the lighting design, it did come across a little tacky or as though the same lighting decal was being utilised over and over again. It did however match the set well which was certainly functional and was used well throughout. By itself, the set did seem a little lifeless. It was the impeccable costuming surrounding it that brought it to life. The cast were dressed beautifully and appropriately with a very obvious attention to detail. The costumes seemed to help the cast immensely in terms of their characterisation and were a joy to look at.
The cast were not just dressed well, their performances, as a whole, were truly entertaining and very engaging. The show itself is quite lengthy but at no point did it feel too long. This was down to the energy and emotion that they ensured was present from the opening note to the closing bow. Cassandra Beckitt as ‘Mother’ was a true beauty, her vocals met with raucous applause. Beckitt found a brilliant balance between gentle and vigorous devotion as a mother and a woman of good moral standing. Her interactions with Tim Haughton as ‘Father’ (who gave a solid individual performance) and Dennis Clements as ‘Tateh’ were exceptionally humbling and certainly captivated audience interest.
Clements WAS Tateh. With every word spoken, note sung, movement made, his portrayal became all the more convincing. A particular highlight came in the form of his reaction to the suggestion of selling his ‘Little Girl’ (played beautifully by Ella Leavy). The emotion was chilling. While at times, his vocals did seem a little fatigued, this only added to the characterisation of ‘Tateh’ and actually worked in his favour.
Curtis Mason was a joy to watch as ‘Younger Brother’. Having seen Mason in previous productions, I believe he truly came into his own in this role and believe he has found his niche. ‘Little Boy’, played by William Fisher was a certain hit with the audience. His comedic timing and cute-as-a-button voice were exceptionally strong and he definitely held his own amongst the grown-ups.
The relationship between Sarah and Coalhouse, played by Manu Lavemai and Marty Alix, respectively, was both heartwarming and heartbreaking. The couple, for the most part, were a believable pairing whose separation was devastating. This was largely due to the stellar performance offered up by Alix, whose portrayal bordered on flawless. His versatility and consistency was something to be truly admired, with beautifully controlled vocals and killer dance moves to boot. One to watch.
Several of the characters of Ragtime are actually real icons and prominent figures from the time, including Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, Brooker T. Washington, Harry Houdini and Henry Ford. The portrayals of these characters were well researched and, while some were evidently more accurate than others, they generally provided strong representations of such historic personas, particularly Bernadette Sheedy’s depiction of Goldman.
The ensemble of this piece provided the necessary energy and consistency expected of them. Each sub-group of the ensemble moved, spoke and sung according to the demographic they were representing and, for the most part, nailed these distinctions. While, at times, some appeared to exude a lot more confidence than others, all members of this cast should be exceptionally proud of their efforts and are encouraged to go into their closing weekend with a sense of sureness and the knowledge that their message is coming through, loud and clear.
As a show rarely performed in Australia, I encourage you to make the most of Waterdale’s initiative and see the show before it closes.