Tuesday, November 5, 2019

RAGTIME - The Production Company

Chloe Zuel (Sarah) - Kurt Kansley (Coalhouse Walker Jr.) in "RAGTIME" 
Book by Terrence McNally – Music by Stephen Flaherty – Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Directed by Roger Hodgman – Musical Direction by Guy Noble
Choreographed by Dana Jolly – Lighting designed by Nigel Levings
Set designed by Christina Smith – Costumes designed by Isaac Lummis
State Theatre –Melbourne – 2nd – 10th November 2019

Opening night performance reviewed by Bill Stephens 

Georgina Hopson (Mother) and the upper-class suburbinites

The Production Company could hardly have chosen a better musical to celebrate the culmination of its 21st year, and its last show in the State Theatre before it undergoes renovations. Because it requires huge and particular resources, Flaherty and Ahren’s musical, “Ragtime”, is rarely performed, and though the score is revered among musical theatre enthusiasts, this is the first time a fully staged professional production has been seen in Australia. And what a triumph it is.

Based on a novel by E.L. Dogtorow, “Ragtime” is set in the United States in the early 20th Century. It tells the stories of three disparate groups – African Americans, represented by Coalhouse Walker Jnr., (Kurt Kansley) a Harlem Musician - upper class suburbanites, represented by Mother (Georgina Hopson), the matriarch of a white New York family - and Eastern European immigrants, represented by Tateh (Alexander Lewis), a Jewish immigrant from Latvia.

Kurt Kansley and Company - "Ragtime"

It also incorporates historical figures including Emma Goldman (Sage Douglas), Evelyn Nesbit (Mackenzie Dunn) Henry Ford (John O’May), J.P Morgan (Anton Berezin), Willie Gonklin (Matt Hamilton), Harry Houdini (Louis Lucente), and a host of other characters, all of whom introduce themselves, speaking in the third person, in the spectacular opening number.

Utilising an uncluttered set design by Christina Smith, consisting of a long walkway above the orchestra, flanked by moveable staircases either side, a huge LCD screen above the staircase displaying handsome black and white images, and the lighting wizardry of Nigel Levings,  director, Roger Hodgeman has created a stylish, constantly evolving pageant of stunning stage pictures  which capture the historical sweep of the story without losing the humanity of the characters portrayed in the interlocking stories.

Mackenzie Dunn as Evelyn Nesbit in "Ragtime" 

Fastidious casting has resulted in an extraordinarily accomplished cast who portray the myriad of characters who people Terence McNally’s finely crafted book, led by Kurt Kansley, who returned from London to play the proud and fiery ragtime musician, Coalhouse Walker Jr, who becomes the catalyst for the events which propel the storyline.

Among an outstanding cast, Chloe Zuel, recently seen as Anita in Opera Australia’s  production of “West Side Story”, is unforgettable as Walker’s sweet young wife, Sarah,  Her interpretation of  “Your Daddy’s Son” is achingly beautiful.

Alexander Lewis brings considerable star quality and superb vocals to his characterisation as  the Latvian migrant, Tateh, his duet “Our children”,  with Georgina Hopson, (Mother) providing just one of an evening of highlights.  Among those not already mentioned in this topline cast, John McTernan (Grandfather) Adam Murphy (Father) Fin alexander (Younger Brother) all shone in smaller roles, especially Ruva Ngwenya (Sarah’s Friend) with her assured soul singing.

On opening night Kempton Maloney and Summer Hamilton both gave assured performances as the Little Boy and Little Girl, while tiny Noah Nzenza brought the audience undone as Coalhouse Walker 111.

Kurt Kansley and Ensemble in "Ragtime" 

A magnificent ensemble of actor/ singers and a superb orchestra conducted by Guy Noble thrilled with the succession of stirring anthems and ballads which make up  Flaherty and Ahrens’ sumptuous score, while choreographer Dana Jolley takes full advantage of the opportunities provided by Isaac Lummis’ graceful costumes to pleasure the eyes with her imaginative dance creations.

All of which adds up to an unforgettable evening of musical theatre destined to imbed itself in the memories of all those lucky enough to experience it, and a fitting tribute to the contribution Jeanne Pratt and her Production Company have made to the musical life of Melbourne and beyond.

                                       Photos by Jeff Busby.

This review also appears in Australian Arts Review. www.artsreview.com.au