Review: Ragtime (The Milwaukee Rep)

| October 19, 2013
Josh Landay and Mallorey Wallace star in Milwaukee Rep's "Ragtime" by Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, directed by Mark Clements. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)        
      
Ragtime

By Terrance McNally (book), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics)
  and Stephen Flaherty (music) 
Directed by Mark Clements
at Quadracci Powerhouse, Milwaukee (map)
thru Oct 27  |  tickets: $20-$85   |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets 
    
        
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A timeless, jubilant ode to America’s simmering ‘melting pot’

     

James Patterson and Gavin Gregory in Milwaukee Rep's "Ragtime" by Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, directed by Mark Clements. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

    
Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents
    
Ragtime

Review by Harry Cherkinian

It’s been 13 years since Ragtime the musical made its theatrical debut. For those counting, that would be “back in the 20th Century.” The musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s bestselling novel about turn of the Century America (that would the 1900s) tells the interlocking stories of three “families” from different “worlds” literally—the insular, affluent white family; the subjugated African American couple and in between, an Eastern European immigrant father and his daughter trying to find a place in the “New World.”

Carmen Cusack stars as Mother in Milwaukee Rep's "Ragtime" by Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, directed by Mark Clements. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)Like an unexpected, rich discovery off “Antiques Roadshow,” The Milwaukee Rep’s current production is pure perfection in its search for the American Dream. The soul of this Search engine clicks smoothly and sleekly on all its well oiled cylinders much like Ragtime’s anthemic number, “Wheels of a Dream.” This Ragtime entertains and educates throughout, with all the historical characters sewn into the fabric of the characters lives and worlds. Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan – all play their parts as their worlds collide and find a new way living. Or at least, existing.

Having seen the original Broadway production in the newly renovated Ford Center for the Performing Arts (currently the Foxwoods Theatre), Ragtime the musical today has taken on more meaning as the world around us still grapples with the issues of immigration and identity now within “the global village,” racism, prejudice, worker exploitation among a host of other “issues.” And the three families manage to maintain their characters’ humanity while becoming iconic images of the past yet mirrors back a déjà vu reflection even today.

The “affluents” are named simply Mother, Father, Younger Brother, Grandfather and Little Boy. White, wealthy, protected, for the time being, from the harsh realities facing the African Americans Coalhouse Walker Jr. and his beloved Sarah, who abandons their out-of-wedlock son in the well-attended garden of Mother. Mother is well heeled but also a progressive, taking in Sarah and the baby while the “ragtime” piano player coalhouse determinedly tries to woo Sarah back to his good graces. Meanwhile, the immigrant Tateh tries to find where he fits in, doing what he can to raise his daughter alone. The paths of these characters cross throughout, and racial tensions build to an explosive climax when Coalhouse’s new Ford is vandalized by while bigots. The city of New York is now on fire as Coalhouse and his followers (now including Mother’s Younger Brother) burn and destroy in revenge. (History does tend to repeat itself, regardless of the age or time we live in).

Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements has opened his fourth season with a production that now becomes the hallmark of his work with the Rep. In addition to directing this production, he has assembled a top notch group of talented actors, which, considering the cast of 32, is a mighty feat indeed. Stephen Mear’s choreography is joyful and exuberant, graceful yet high energy. But is it is the cast and the multi-faceted leads that lend a beauty and inner guiding light to this production, be it songs like “Journey On” to the gospel tinged First Act closer, “Till We Reach that Day.”

There are any number of wonderfully staged musical sequences, and with autumn in full swing in the Midwest the Atlantic City beach sequence is particularly fun and refreshing, the cast in old fashioned one piece swim suits (men included) bouncing giant beach balls back and forth and playfully tossing into the audience (they all got bounced back to the actors).

But as far as acting goes, could there be more perfect casting than Carmen Cusack as Mother? She owns this production, along with Gavin Gregory as Coalhouse. We watch the transformations in both; Mother, as she realizes that she and Father have less and less in common and more and more in common with “free thinkers” like Tateh. And Coalhouse, as his sublimated rage bursts forth from his well-taught social manners. Even within his criminal acts, Gregory maintains Walker’s dignity and pride despite overwhelming odds.

Luke Brotherhood, Carmen Cusack, Jessie Hooker, Gavin Gregory and Jonathan Gillard Daly star in Milwaukee Rep's "Ragtime" by Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, directed by Mark Clements. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

And Mother maintains her own dignity as she drifts away from her set beliefs and unquestioned “family values” into new ones. There is a great moment among many watching Cusack as she walks on the imaginary “beach” of the hardwood floor stage. Stopping to coyly talk with Tateh, she runs her bare feet over the imagined “sand and water’s edge” playing with the tide as she plays with passions of the now successful fully Americanized Tateh. We are entranced by the magic of the moment and what this actress creates.

Yet, there are so many other wonderful performances that make this Ragtime a joy to watch: Josh Landay’s immigrant Tateh; Melissa Joy Hart’s old Emma Goldman; Kelley Faulkner’s ditzy beauty, Evelyn Nesbit; Carl Clemons-Hopkins commanding Booker T. Washington; and in a challenging role to define and play, Michael Doherty as the Younger Brother, tortured in love, unsure of who he is, looking for a cause to define his sense of self.

Identity is at the heart of Ragtime; where we came from, who we are today, and where we are going to be who we will end up being. Like the well drawn characters in this production, we just need to take that all important first step.

  
Rating: ★★★★
  
   

Ragtime continues through October 27th at Milwaukee Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse, 108 E. Wells (map), with performances Wednesdays at 1:30/7:30pm, Thursdays 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 4pm/8:15pm, Sundays 2pm/7pm.  Tickets are $20-$85, and are available by phone (414-224-9490) or online through their website.  More information at MilwaukeeRep.com(Running time: 3 hours 20 minutes, includes an intermission)

Opening number for Milwaukee Rep's "Ragtime" by Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, directed by Mark Clements. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

Photos by Michael Brosilow 


     

artists

cast

Luke Brotherhood, Carmen Cusack, Jonathan Gillard Daly, Michael Doherty, Elizabeth Earley, Kelley Faulkner, Gavin Gregory, Melissa Joy Hart, David Hess, Jessie Hooker, Carl Clemons Hopkins, Tyler Johnson, Freddie Kimmel, Josh Landay, Shina Ann Morris, Gabriel Mudd, Beth Mulkerron, Gerard Neugent, James Patterson, Georgina Pink, Sam Strasfeld, Bethany Thomas, Mallorey Wallace, Steve Watts

behind the scenes

Mark Clements (director, artistic director), Dan Kazemi (music director), Paul Helm (rehearsal pianist), Todd Edward Ivins (set design), Alex Tecoma (costume design), Jeff Nellis (lighting design), John Tanner (sound design), Stephen Mear (choreography), Jill Walmsley Zager (dialect coach), Henry Lewis II (asst. sound design), Emily Penick (asst. director), Laura F. Wendt (stage manager), Sarah Hoffmann, Kimberly Ann McCann (asst. stage managers), Kaitlin Kitzmiller (stage manager apprentice), Michael Brosilow (photos)

Carl Clemons-Hopkins and Martel Manning and Gavin Gregory in Milwaukee Rep's "Ragtime" by Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, directed by Mark Clements. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

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Category: 2013 Reviews, Ahrens & Flaherty, Harry Cherkinian, Milwaukee, Milwaukee Rep, Musical

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