‘Where’s the America we were supposed to get? Was it a silhouette?’
It’s hard to deny that America is currently facing a storm of socio political issues: rising racial tensions; polarisation in communities over its immigration system; dwindling worker’s rights; and the ever-widening gap between the richest and the poorest in society.
It’s easy to think that these are all just problems of today. But in seeing Ragtime, a musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel, I’m reminded that the seeds of these fundamental challenges facing the US were sown in a time long before now.
With 37 musical numbers and a two hour and forty-minute running time, Ragtime is a beast of a musical and an ambitious undertaking for any amateur theatrical company to stage something of this scale. But the well-oiled machine that is Sedos rose to the challenge and certainly delivered.
Ragtime tackles some complex themes and not all theatregoers will have the temperament to enjoy the show in its entirety. But for those with the appetite for an epic musical, with a sensational 33-person cast, a rousing score delivered by an excellent 18-piece orchestra, this one should not disappoint.
This musical presents the stories of the melting pot of individuals and communities who made up the American population during the early twentieth century. It’s a pivotal time in US History. It’s a time when industrial titans such as J.P Morgan and Henry Ford were at large, when African-Americans had begun to establish their independence in the post-civil war era and when the US experienced a rise in immigration from Eastern Europe.
At its centre, we focus in on these three stories which intertwine in surprising and unexpected ways. We meet a wealthy and sheltered white family in New Rochelle, New York, an African-American piano player from Harlem and also an immigrant artist struggling to survive with his daughter.
Sedos’ production of Ragtime, impressively helmed by Matt Gould, is the third time I’ve seen this show live. But this one marks the first time where there hasn’t been an attempt to add frills nor do anything different with the show as originally written. To its credit, the musical was just as engaging and impactful as I remembered it to be.
Every element of the production is worthy of high praise, from the polished choreography, the striking set and lighting design to the elaborate period costumes. The cast were astounding and collectively shone during the ensemble numbers including ‘New Music’ and ‘Till We Reach that Day’.
With a cast such as this, it’s difficult to pick out a standout performance. But some highlights include Chloë Faine’s portrayal of the tender yet headstrong Mother and also the hilariously executed number ‘What a Game’. Younger Brother, who channels his restless passion into whatever catches his attention in the spur of the moment, was brilliantly portrayed by Robert J Stanex. Stanex’s strong vocal delivery of ‘The Night Goldman Spoke at Union Square’, became an unexpected attention-grabbing moment of the evening.
Each time I see this musical, I come away with something new. For me, this production drew into sharper focus the battles which sections of society contend with in America.
For the immigrant artist, Tateh (Rob Archibald) and his daughter (Jessica Helfgott), their battle was against the workings of capitalism. We see their painful struggle to survive and how they are forced to endure conditions which were so much more abymsal than what they expected in a developed country. Archibald and Helfgott deliver moving performances, particularly in the number ‘Gliding’ and share an endearing father-daughter bond.
In contrast, the battle of the African-American family was against racial prejudice. Coalhouse Walker Jr (Jonathon Grant) is an educated musician who dreams of a better life for Sarah (Sara Rajeswaran) and his new family. But when he is the target of a racially motivated act of vandalism, he is resolute that he will find justice. After a series of setbacks, Coalhouse eventually inspires a violent movement which snowballs into something much larger than himself. This movement is an accumulation of all the frustration he feels towards the prejudice he and others have experienced. Grant’s descent from a well meaning citizen to a rogue vigilante is difficult to see and the smooth and silky tones of his voice makes songs such as ‘Make Them Hear You’ that much more stirring.
Eventually, fate works in Tateh’s favour and he is able to achieve his ‘American Dream’. We see that he and his daughter are able to assimilate into American society and overcome the battle against economic hardship. His attire even changes to the same material of the well-to-do white American family. But as for Coalhouse Walker Jr, things don’t turn out so well.
By the finale, I find myself weeping when Coalhouse Walker III, a young black kid, makes an appearance. I am reminded that this young boy is born into a time long before Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement, before Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and the reports of police brutality we hear in the US today. Although the musical seeks to end on a note of optimism, I am reminded that in that kid’s lifetime he will most likely continue the battle against racial prejudice. It makes me question when will we all be able to look past the colour of each other’s skin and this battle be a thing of the past?
Sedos have created a captivating and heartbreaking production which should stay with you long after you leave the theatre. You’d be hard pressed to find such an abundance of talent elsewhere in the West End.
Ragtime is running at the Bridewell Theatre until 23 November 2019 at the time of writing. https://sedos.co.uk/2019/ragtime.htm
Photo Credit: Dancers of London