A History Timely, Milwaukee Repertory, Ragtime

Rep Ragtime

Gleefully, gentile fellows in seersucker suits and skimmers promenaded on the Quadracci Powerhouse apron, linked in arms with fair ladies tucked into lightly corseted and hooped summer dresses, clutching parasols, singing in chorus, “There were gazebos, there were no…,” High societies’ Mothers’ and Fathers’ boardwalk attitudes typified.

Soulfully, dapper dons glided into their corner of the scene from upstage, clapping, defying disenfranchisement. They tipped the brims of their derbies clad in pinstriped vests and spit shined wingtips. Sweet mamas snapping sassily, with hips swaying, skipping beside their men singing in time, “Giving the nation, a new syncopation…,” Uptown’s first anthem, Coalhouse a man, and his song, killing the dames softly.

Devoutly, proud settlers in a new land dipped at the knee, with arms lifted to the shoulders, clinging to the old country’s ways, heads crowned with a version of the Hasidic Yud, black woolen coats and scarves cradling their torsos. Tateh has brought his daughter to America to make a new home, a prologue offered for his people, “The sound of distant thunder suddenly starting to climb…”

Content murmurs, jovial outbursts and applause energed the ensemble on cue with each bit. The opening scene of Mark Clements’ production of Ragtime met an rousing embrace from the audience even before the first act was over.

Tracing, Retracing

Ragtime written by Terrance McNalley, and based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel, takes place in turn of 20th century New York City and offers yet another glimpse, through a different window, into a period that cultural buffs have grown quite fond.

Does the veil of propriety and other social illusions draw us? Could it be the uncertainty of the times, upheavals in all areas of life rising with each day? Maybe its the ingenuity of post-industrial technology. Some combination of some other reasons, probably not named here, has aided Clements in bringing us to the whipping post again, to flog us with dramatized American historical fiction; again to our enjoyment.

Layering several concentric story lines, assisted by exemplary production values in stage direction (Clements), lighting (Jeff Nellis), sound (John Tanner), costume (Alexander Tecoma) and scenic artistry, Clements wields Ragtime’s literary edge to cut, salve, and then singe repeatedly the audience’s senses, exercising the joys and sorrows of American life in post-Industrial NYC.

The Art of Place

A two story faux steel girded structure, spans from stage left to stage right, mechanically swinging like a immense barn door, stretching the play into vertical space. The ensemble numbering at least 40, scamper, parade and pause from all imaginable entrances and stage positions.

The technical aspects of the show in isolation from the drama inspire admiration. Credit Todd Edward Ivins (Scenic Director), and the rest of the production team Laura Wendt (Stage Manager), Sarah Hoffman (Assistant Stage Manager), Kimberly Ann McCann (Assistant Stage Manager), and Emily Penick (Assistant Director) for a incredibly delightful technical theater experience

These Crowded Streets, These Lonely Meadows

Ragtime winds around Mother’s (Carmen Cusack) struggles with her contrived marriage to Father (David Hess), Tateh’s (Josh Landay) search for a livelihood and prosperity for he and his daughter, and Coalhouse Walker’s (Gavin Gregory) reconciliation of his musical talents, of his love for Sarah (Jessie Hooker) and their child, and with his standing as a newly minted citizen of the lowest denomination.

These main characters weave and wind their way through the City streets, alley ways and flushing meadows, occasionally bumping into well know celebrities of their time. Eventually, happenstance brings each to encounter one another.

Legends in their Turn

We meet Harry Houdini (Sam Strasfeld) in the middle of one of his death defying acts. In dandiful manner, Evelyn Nesbit (Kelley Faulkner) tries to steal our hearts, playing America’s first celebrity personality (think of the infamous lineage she begot, the most recent of her brood, if you will forgive me, something the likes of Amanda Bynes).

The seething heat of the Lower Eastside Manhattan draws buckets of sweat from exploited factory workers. Among their ranks Tateh searches for a better way to rub two pennies together. For some, Emma Goldman (Melissa Joy Hart) rises as an indomitable figure of action. Tateh, who’s spirit is fortified by the many indignities he’s endured, sees another way, imagination and gall, to breath life to the technical origins of the modern entertainment industry.

Stormy with Coalhouse’s piano scales, Uptown nights rage with the collective passion stored in the mettle of Black Americans, releasing sounds of new found freedom. Beneath musical cocktail of sorrow and jubilation, Booker T. Washington (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) extolls the virtues of diligence and intellectual proficiency, with a pace less pleasing than the tempo of ragtime. Meanwhile, we see Henry T. Ford’s (James Patterson) vision for American mobility come to life and pluck men, alike or not in concern for social pondering, into his organizational machine for making machines.

With some irony, during Father’s journey for purpose to Europe, we even encounter Admiral Peary (Steve Watts) and Matthew Henson (Gabriel Mudd), possibly two of the most obscure references of the “ragtime” era. Henson, a Black American, who is credited in history as exploring much of the Northern Hemisphere on his own expeditions, is overshadowed by his colleague Peary, signifying the realities of the times.

Thickening Hides

Willie Conklin (Gerard Neugent) embodies the hash iniquities of racial discernment during the period. Conklin too treads his own path, going well out of his given station to express his disdain for anyone not like himself, especially for blacks. Through the use of a choice word or two, we are surely made to notice a route to the central tension in the plot.

In his dialog, Conklin makes a point to downplay his racial animus as something all Americans had to go through, a point of contention achieving the sneaky provocateur needed in all good commentary. Bring you earmuffs if you bristle at seeing the bitter truths of American social structures role played; And Coalhouse obliges.

Polishing both sides of the Coin

The good days meet the bad ones early and often in Ragtime. Along the way, the production’s technical effects highlight the vast range of emotional facets in story. Even more astonishing, the musical accompaniment is played by a live ensemble providing both the score and the sound effects punctuating many of the scene’s .

Ragtime boasts sound and lighting cues numbering in the thousands. The musical ensemble featured Stephen Flaherty’s original score, directed by Dan Kazemi and performed by Blair Bielawski (Reeds), Brett Murphy (Trumpet), Kyle Samuelson (Trombone), Clay Schaub (Upright Bass), Tom Schlueter (Trumpet), and Terry Smirl (Drums).

The main characters of Ragtime are made full with the phenomenal vocal talents of Cusack, Hooker, Gregory, and Landay, and supported masterfully by the ensemble notably Hart, and Bethany Thomas, performing the lyrics of Lynn Ahern.

Opening with a Bang

Thoroughly delighting the audience, Ragtime has a little something for everyone. The ovation at the curtain call indicated as much, as a the applause from the nearly capacity crowd mysteriously found a single rhythmic beat. Ragtime runs long weekends at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater until October 27.

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