The musical Ragtime premieres at the Open Air Theatre, and its turn-of-the-century, heavily allegorical themes have been accentuated to the full in Timothy Shader's production. The ragtime music is a fresh and interesting twist on the classic musical, and it is produced and performed exquisitely - but is it all a little too heavy-handed?
The piece focuses on three families, each representing a different facet of the American Family: a white, middle class family of WASPs; a young black man and his estranged, pregnant girlfriend; and an immigrant father and daughter. Their stories interweave with each other and numerous famous faces as the WASPs learn to be a little less repressed, the black family faces numerous tragedies and the immigrant family makes it big in Hollywood - I mentioned that this was an allegory already, didn't I?
There is a genuinely tragic story here in the doomed romance between Coalhouse and Sarah, the black family mentioned above, but most of the piece is made up of vignettes of the characters' lives, little moments (interspersed with song) that try and capture the spirit of America - at least, that's what they keep singing about! Designer Jon Bausor has taken this to heart in his monumental stage design as well, featuring many a corporate logo and symbol scattered over the detritus of a post-apocalyptic building site, all overlooked by the stern gaze of Barack Obama's campaign poster - with a hole seared through the middle.
As may be evident from my tone so far, I find it hard to enjoy such po-faced symbolism - for example, I really didn't need to have the WASP family named Father, Mother, Little Brother et al. to get the concept - but the piece quickly calms down and focuses on the various smaller stories within the piece. The white family's slow breakdown is entirely understandable, and the sense of the world changing around them and Father's refusal to move with the times is simply and effectively done - there are great performances from David Birrell and Rosalie Craig, including her powerful delivery of "Back to Before". David Marquez is also excellent as Tateh (the Jewish immigrant), playing the rags to riches story with aplomb.
However, the stars of the show are Rolan Bell and Claudia Kariuki, performing the tragic story of Coalhouse and Sarah with fiery passion and too many tearful ballads and raucous dance numbers to name. Bell is no stranger to singing and dancing thanks to Fela!, and it's hard to believe this is Kariuki's professional debut - although she does have less to do than her exceptional male co-star, who should be expecting award-nods. Their tragic story overshadows the heavy-handed symbolism easily.
It's not a musical that's going to appeal to everyone - the ragtime music's off-kilter rhythm doesn't make for easy tunes to hum along to, but it does grow on you and offer a vibrant change from some of the more 'trad' musicals. I really can't get behind something quite so 'meaningful' (not to ruin the ending, but all three families end up becoming one in the melting pot that is America... groan), but when the story cuts through the symbolism, it is enjoyable and entertaining. And if you haven't been to the Open Air Theatre before - it's magical.