If the origin of music is in environmental sounds, like bird calls for the Native American flute or insect buzzing for the the Indian Sitar, then the source of Ragtime music must be the machine: the steady clockwork ratchet or pumping of steam pistons inspired the characteristic sound of turn-of-the-century America, at the dawn of the Industrial age, with all its Faustian dynamism.
Sex scandals, lurid murders, terrorism, assassinations, obscene inequality; yes, that could easily be today’s news–which is more or less the point of the musical Ragtime, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow and currently playing at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Anyone with a gilt-framed picture of “the good old days” will be quickly disabused by this vivid depiction of them; those times were as violent, passionate, and gloriously messy as today. Quite rightly praised as a grand summation of America, Doctorow’s story, with it’s mischievous intermingling of fiction and history, tartly shows us truths about ourselves on such a grand and complex scale as to completely merit the title “epic.” And if, in doing so, the work demonstrates liberal values at their purest, it does so in the classic, heartbreaking faith that to understand another is to have compassion. This is not to say the show isn’t richly entertaining, its values are so smoothly mingled with its drama, comedy, and spectacle, that it rings, not as preaching, but as truth.
The marvelously interwoven opening number alone is worth the price of admission: a wealthy New York family, dressed in gorgeous summer white, opens the show with a stately strut; in quick succession we’re introduced to the rowdy, sensuous moves of red-clad American blacks and the longing drive of Eastern-European immigrants, dressed in blacks and grays, with the ancient Levantine lament woven into their DNA. We meet “characteristic” individuals from each group, yet distinct persons with distinct passions and foibles: the paterfamilias with wanderlust; his trophy wife, nursing hidden yearnings behind her flawless facade; the honkytonk piano player with grand dreams; the enterprising immigrant artist. We also meet some colorful historical figures, chosen, one more than suspects, for their symbolic power: J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, and the scandalous “It” girl Evelyn Nesbit (the Kim Kardashian of her day). How these lives, dreams, and images intertwine is the burden of a long, complex first act. Via the accomplished book of Terrence McNally, Ragtime unfolds a grand panorama of the inner tensions of the nation, accentuated by the insistent oompah and grind of that music, as if the entire period is a magnificent, dangerous engine.
An ambitious undertaking. But by casting Broadway-level singer/dance/actors, a crew of dynamic designers, and the contributions of accomplished musicians and choreography, director Mark Clements demonstrates his mastery of the complex orchestration of talent to do this this amazing work justice. The show is full-to-bursting with high points: moving moments, funny moments, lovely moments; each of the main characters shares his or her moment of truth, and the production is full of theatrical flash and dazzle: Houdini hanging upside down in a straightjacket; Evelyn Nesbit crying “Whee!” as she soars over our heads on a gilded swing; a delightful Atlantic city number with enormous striped beach balls, and just enough atmospheric haze to suggest the age of steam.
One might grumble a bit about “hiring locally”, but there’s not a weak performance in the mostly flown-in cast. The leads are particularly winning, giving performances of outsize passion, if not subtlety (it is a Broadway musical, after all, where semaphored thought is the common standard). As the industrialist’s wife, who’s single act of compassion initiates the complex saga, Carmen Cusak goes from an exquisite China doll to a strong woman whose ethical stand leads to more than one redemption. As an out-of-wedlock mother, Jessie Hooker conveys both a childlike sense of being lost in a harsh world, and the tentative steps of a child towards grown-up happiness; as the musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Gavin Gregory brings megawatt charisma, showing both the endless optimism of the pre-World War I era, and the desperate rage of a man whose bliss has been cruelly thwarted. All three performers knock their songs out of the park.
All the sound and fury can actually be a trifle exhausting sometimes: relax for a second, we want to tell them, you’re doing a great job! One can question, too, the need to blast us in our seats by body-miked singers with the vocal power to easily fill a house three times the size of the not-vast Quadracci Powerhouse Theater without amplification. But it’s certainly much better to be overwhelmed by a show than the opposite, and we hope Mark Clements keeps putting on big, bold musicals like Ragtime. He deserves praise for even choosing this grand, unwieldy vehicle for Milwaukee—reportedly the most racially-segregated city in the country. Its issues, both personal and political, are hotly-debated as of this writing. Risking alienating his more conservative subscribers, Clements is taking the side of the angels. If artists keep telling us to understand one another, to forgive, relent, and have compassion, maybe indeed Booker T. Washington’s vision will one day be fulfilled.
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Based on the novel “Ragtime” by E.L. Doctorow
Directed by Mark Clements
The Milwaukee Repertory Theater
Ragtime runs through Oct. 27 at the Quadracci Powerhouse. For tickets, call 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com.