Through unusual circumstance (No, Virginia, there is no such thing as failsafe e-mail), it proved rather fortuitous to take in the Shaw Festival’s Ragtime weeks after its opening night but just four days after the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Henry V (cross-reference below). Both feature leading men who may or may not be considered heroes. King Harry in his trumped up (never underestimate the clergy when faced with financial “challenges”) quest for France has no qualms about ordering the death of French prisoners (their physical baggage becoming too much of a nuisance prior to the BIG battle). Composer/pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. has no problems abandoning his bastard son while violently making his political points about heinous oppression of blacks in a white man’s world. Fortunately, Ragtime has enough music to patch over the character flaws while the Bard’s curious insights into unholy war could have benefitted from a vrai chorus from stem to stern.
Jackie Maxwell’s production suits the 1812 celebratory year to a T. The tale of three distinct societies (whitebread, immigrant, black) making their way in the era of “ragged time” music as convincingly performed by the Canadian troupe is the ideal theatrical metaphor for Canada’s ability to successfully compete with America at its own game of music theatre—happily, in this aspect of showbiz, we are all “Easy Winners.” It takes a few numbers to lift off, but once “The Getting Ready Rag” hits the boards (kudos to Valerie Moore for her eye-pleasing choreography) the show takes flight and seldom falters.
Vocally, Thom Allison makes for an impressive Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (yet a consistent approach to “miming” his piano playing would help suspension of disbelief), Patty Jamieson delivers a radiant Mother (“Back to Before” is especially moving; teaming up with ever-inventive Jay Turvey as Tateh in “Our Children” is another Act II highlight) while Benedict Campbell couldn’t quite support the top range of Father’s contributions. Alana Hibbert as Sarah is a most welcome addition to the company bringing a wide range of emotion and impressive legato to all of her songs, playing her friend, Nichola Lawrence was also in excellent form for her song, “Till We Reach That Day.”
Musical director Paul Sportelli keeps the orchestra on its toes, wisely letting the syncopation work its magic without pushing the tempo so fast (as was Gunther Schuller’s wont with his recording of Scott Joplin’s The Red Back Book) that its entrancing effect never wavers (and completely at one with Houdini’s—Kelly Wong doing the honours—seemingly impossible, equally artistic “cascading” escapes).
Apart from the glorious music, Terrence McNally’s reworking of the novel by E.L. Doctorow provides many thought-provoking situations that still play out daily as immigration continues to change the “peoplescape” of cities (cross-reference below) and those in authority still have a penchant to shoot first and ask questions later.
Like all excellent work, Ragtime’s universality ensures its timeless appeal. JWR