Shaw Festival Review Series: RAGTIME
Children's novelist, Hermine Steinberg, begins her Shaw Festival review series with 'Ragtime'.
Let me begin by saying that seeing any theater production at the Shaw Festival is an experience that I don’t believe can be duplicated anywhere else. Of course, I may be biased in this regard, as I am one of the many travellers who became seduced by the hidden gem better known as Niagara-on-the-Lake, and recently succumbed to purchasing a home here. Its historic charm, world class cultural amenities, and surrounding natural beauty combine to offer the benefits of small-town living without the sacrifice of cosmopolitan lifestyle. This, of course, speaks to my Boomer weakness or failing of wanting it all – a guilty confession at a time of economic hardship and struggle for many. This is also the irony of going to see Ragtime on opening night when distinguished men in tuxedos and women wearing their most fashionable garb arrive early to sip award-winning local wines in the Festival Theatre’s chic courtyard. Adding to the paradox, but enhancing the exquisite experience that is Shaw, most of us walk down the tree-shaded streets of what has been referred to as one of Canada’s most beautiful towns after enjoying a sumptuous gourmet meal at one of the many local eateries, away from the stress and trials of modern urban life, to the Festival Theater – the major stage of the Shaw Festival.
Ragtime is a revival of the musical (which is based on E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel of the same name) originally produced by Canadian Garth Drabinsky (Livent) and premiered in Toronto in 1996. Although it was critically acclaimed and won 13 Tony awards after hitting Broadway, the unmanageable cost of the production forced it to close prematurely.
Jackie Maxwell’s vision of creating “relevant and exceptional” theater is achieved in this thought-provoking revival of Ragtime. It starts slowly laying the foundation of a story told in montage-style about an era marked by rapid change and the resulting fear and frustration that accompanies it. Ragtime is an iconic representation of life at the turn of the 20th century seen from the perspective of three families whose lives intersect. This is not a historical fiction, although it is littered with historical characters who serve to symbolize various aspects of life in the early 1900s. As Doctorow explained, it “defies facts” in order to explain the racism, class struggle, bigotry, and disillusionment of those who felt left out of the American Dream or wanted to redefine it in a way that would bring them greater humanity. As a writer of children’s fantasy, I am acutely aware that more truth can sometimes be told through the emotional communication evoked by fictional characters and events than is achieved through the statement of facts. This approach to storytelling is superbly supported by a wonderful ensemble of actors, interesting set design, and impressive delivery of powerful songs that underpin Ragtime’s epic plot. One of the clear highlights of the evening is the company’s musical rendition of “Till we Reach That Day” at the end of the first half. It featured the outstanding performance of Nichola Lawrence who single-handedly brought the house down.
Thom Allison’s performance as Coalhouse is impeccable. However, this story line of a Black Harlem musician whose initial optimism about his future is turned to rage and violence due to the injustices and loss he must endure due to racism, violence, and corruption is at times unsettling and perhaps now viewed through a lens different from what was initially intended. In our post 9/11 world it is with mixed feelings we empathize and fear the evolution of a once righteous man who becomes a terrorist. It does give us food for thought and can lead to a very interesting post-theater discussion.
Ragtime should definitely be seen. In fact, I would recommend parents bring their children if they are in middle or high school. However, I would strongly recommend that children be prepared for the experience. It must be understood within the context of world events and history. The racist language and violence should be discussed in advance. But the themes of hope, resilience, confronting change, and search for meaning and justice are particularly relevant today – especially for our young people. Ragtime presents a wonderful opportunity to discuss these issues with our children. Moreover, it is probably a musical that really represents our era and the issues we are now confronting as much or perhaps even more than the time period it attempts to depict.
Hermine Steinberg is a young adult/children’s author and high school teacher living in Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Her novel, The Co-Walkers: Awakening, is available through Amazon, Chapters Indigo, and Barnes & Noble. Hermine will be at the Niagara Literary Arts Festival at “A Book Affair” Saturday, June 9th (12-5 p.m.) at the Niagara Falls Public Library on Victoria Ave in Niagara Falls and will be reading from her novel on June 10th at 2 p.m. at the Fine Grind Cafe on James St in St. Catharines. For more information, please visit www.cowalkers.com.