When the senior school students at St. Michaels University School were asked for their ideas for what production to stage for their annual musical, Ragtime seemed to be a natural fit. The school is perhaps the most diverse single school population in all of B.C. – and Ragtime is a production with a central theme of immigration, ethnic diversity and acceptance.
Then came the political upheaval of the American election and suddenly the story became far more appropriate than anyone had imagined.
“This show is so relevant to what’s going on in the world today,” said Christian Okiring, the Grade 12 student who plays the lead role of Coalhouse Walker Junior in the production. “It speaks to the issues of race, identity, sexuality…and how people from different walks of life can come together to make a better world.”
Okiring and his castmates from St. Michaels will take to the stage of the McPherson Playhouse Feb. 23-25 for the production.
The story takes place at the dawn of a new century in the United States – a time when everything seems to be in upheaval. It’s set in the volatile melting pot of turn-of-the-century New York City and weaves the stories of three very different American experiences. We have the confused and concerned upper-class wife, a determined Jewish immigrant and a rebellious and daring black Harlem musician. Despite their disparate backgrounds, the characters all believe in the promise of a better future. They confront the meaning of America and the challenges of income inequality, freedom, prejudice and, most of all, hope.
Some of that social change is epitomized by the advent of ragtime music in the bustle of Harlem as pioneered by Okiring’s Coalhouse character.
“I never imagined how important these issues would be when we started working on this production,” said Okiring. “Recent events have certainly highlighted the need for everyone to remember how the spirit, determination, and most of all the courage of people back then worked to overcome a lot of the challenges they faced. We still need that courage today.”
Orla Mcleray, who plays the role of Emma Goldman in the Ragtime production, agreed. Emma is an anarchist and passionate advocate of workers’ rights. Mcleray is a Grade 11 student who came to St. Michaels from London, England.
“The show is about a social shift and the changes in society happening back then, but the issues still resonate today. It’s about immigration and a more equal society,” said Mcleray. “These are issues that have never gone away and in many ways Emma could be delivering the same message today.”
Ragtime is a remarkably collaborative effort by the more than 100 students involved in the production. Of those students, 44 are on stage, while the remaining participants are members of the orchestra and crew. Crew members are involved in costumes, makeup, staging, set design and construction and all the other minutia required for a successful production.
The onstage cast have been working for months, some since September when voice training began, to create a seamless and professionally staged show.
“It’s a perfect show for our students,” said director Ian Collett. “This school has more than 40 different nationalities represented, but somehow they come together into this tight-knit community of artists to offer this production to the public. That in itself is inspirational. These young people rise above their differences and embrace their common strengths to create something really special.”
Tickets ($25.25) are available now through the Royal and McPherson box office or online at http://www.rmts.bc.ca/events/ragtime-the-musical-2017-mcpherson-playhouse. The show runs Feb. 23-25 with nightly performances at 7:30 p.m., plus a 2 p.m. matinee on Feb. 25.