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American rags, riches and everything in between

“It’s unlike any other musical I had seen. So ambitious,” he says. “It’s mindblowing how full it was. The music is very emotional … It would definitely be in my top 10 shows – probably the only musical I’d put in my top 10.”

That’s a big call, I say. He laughs, saying, yes, he’s seen a few shows.

It’s a story that resonates for leads Kurt Kansley, who we saw most recently as Che Guevara in Evita, and Chloe Zuel, who just finished playing Anita in West Side Story.

People will leave feeling more moved than they expected.

Chloe Zuel

“The themes of racism throughout this show are still relevant in Australia and the world, unfortunately,” Zuel says. “People will relate to that or it will bring up things for people. Because of the emotional content of the show as well, people will leave feeling more moved than they expected, asking themselves more questions than they thought they would.”

Kansley reprises the role of the pianist he played in 2012; he says he brings more to his character this time around. “I feel like I’ve grown up and can really understand the part. I feel so connected to it – it’s not a struggle for me to find the emotional storytelling that’s required, I find it easier to tap into, now that I’ve lived a bit more.”

He agrees Ragtime will hit a chord with Australian audiences, arguing the themes are universal. “It’s the story of a rainbow of people from different backgrounds, different colours and creeds, the rich and the poor, and how they’re navigating through life in America. They want to live the American dream … We want to live the Australian dream – and we all have a right to.”

Zuel and Kansley perform alongside Georgina Hopson, Alexander Lewis, Adam Murphy, Sage Douglas, Mackenzie Dunn, Finn Alexander and John McTernan. The show’s musical director is Guy Noble and choreography is by Dana Jolly. Rehearsals for Production Company shows are traditionally about two weeks. It seems a remarkably brief period of time for a musical, given there are scripts, songs and dances to be mastered.

Director Roger Hodgman, renowned for his television and theatre work, as well as musical theatre.

Director Roger Hodgman, renowned for his television and theatre work, as well as musical theatre.

Hodgman says the principals tend to come knowing their stuff and that musical theatre ensembles are very quick learners.

“I’m constantly amazed at how quickly they pick things up. It’s still very hectic,” he says. “You have to go with your first instincts. I think it’s made me a better director – I tend to work faster when I’m working on other shows. And then go back and dig deeper, which you don’t have [time to do] here. The adrenalin rush is pretty exciting. As long as the performers feel reasonably secure in what they’re doing.”

No one is panicking on the day I visit rehearsals; quite the contrary. Kansley and Zuel sing one of their duets and it’s pitch-perfect. In the room next door the ensemble are being taken through the choreography for another number.

Production Company shows traditionally dispense with major props for their show (this year’s Lazarus aside) which Hodgman says serves to emphasise the work itself. “You can’t be diverted by wonderful scenery moving everywhere. You don’t have the chandelier coming down as you did in Phantom … which I think is the intention. That’s why the orchestra is on stage. [It] throws the focus on the material and not on the bells and whistles.”

For Hodgman, the show has been several decades in the coming. Ever since he saw it, he wanted to direct it. “Even though it’s set 100 years ago, it’s still timely,” he says. “Great pieces of theatre stay relevant because they’re about big themes, not the minutiae of the period.”

Ragtime is at the State Theatre, November 2-10.

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