BWW Reviews: Glorious RAGTIME Celebrates Rep's 60th Season
The Milwaukee Rep embarked on a new journey when Mark Clements presented a resplendent Ragtime to open the company's 60th anniversary season in September 2013. As Clements begins his second term as Artistic Director, this Ragtime production carries the audience for a ride on the "wheels of a dream" with a lingering presence few will encounter. Every theatrical and musical detail, from the casting, costumes, lighting and stage design rose above any expectations the audience previously envisioned. Opening night for the Rep's 60th season proved awe inspiring, almost angelic, assuring the supreme possibilities inherent in any art performance.
An original Broadway musical based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel of the same name, Ragtime encompasses the turbulence underscoring the turn of the 20th century, before World War I. During this period, the "Rag Ships" as they were called, transferred millions of immigrants to America, the teeming masses of Irish, Italian, Jewish and Polish peoples from Europe. The musical highlights two, African American and Jewish, to mix with the white nouveau riche Americans living comfortably in New Rochelle, New York. Current events from the era also showcase Ragtime's celebrities in the news: a political activist Emma Goldman, illusionist Harry Houdini and the scandalous chanteuse Evelyn Nesbit.
In the 21st century, the plight of immigrants, Asian American, Hmong, Latino and Vietnamese again cross all international borders to realize the American Dream, perhaps less easily achieved then 100 years before when anything seemed possible. Today, sports heroes, supposed movie and rock celebrities along with wayward politicians keep the press occupied with pop culture. Ragtime's family charterizes Father and Mother, the very impressive David Hess and Carmen Cusack, Little Boy, Grandfather, and Younger Brother, and eventually the baby Coalhouse Walker III, to reflect the changing journey of the American family, then and now. When women in the early 1900's were seeking the right to vote and making their identities known, today they still struggle for equal pay and breaking glass ceilings.
These themes play throughout the exceptional lyrics and music by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Syncopated rhythms and blues, touched with heartfelt ballads and gospel, that every cast member delivers on stage pitch perfect. Cusack in "What Kind of Woman" or "Back to Before," or the lovely Jessie Hooker acting as Sarah when she laments "His Name was Coalhouse Walker." Gavin Gregory plays the skilled ragtime pianist and Sarah's lover who ignites a social fire in New Rochelle, dramatically realized when he opens the second act with "Coalhouse's Soliloquy." These multiple themes collide when Father, Mother and family then travel to Atlantic City to escape the racial violence where an incredible slow-motion sequence illustrates the silent film industry that will rapidly change into talkies, and echoes the coming transformation of the American cultural dream with the rumblings of the First World War.
Award winning Stephen Mear's choreography dazzles the eye to complement Scenic Designer Todd Edward Ivins' steel structured train station, which transitions effortlessly wherever Ragtime leads the audience. And throughout this three hour perfromance, Ivins' sets foresee the skyscrapers to be built in the Industrial Age, in the early 1900's fast gaining momentum. Within this expertly executed stage production of Ragtime, Lighting Designer Jeff Nellis creates incredible snow or stars at a moments notice to illuminate the action, soften the disturbing, solemn events unfolding in the story.
This glorious first production to the Rep's 60th season marks another journey for the company and the audience. When each person confronts the critical issues Ragtime presents equally relevant in contemporary society. As a subscriber to the Rep for over 30 years, rarely has one be so astounded by the capacity of a company to come so far in a dramatic journey, or so quickly in the quest for superior theater over the last four years.