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James Patterson, Gavin Gregory and the cast of the Milwaukee Rep's production of "Ragtime."
James Patterson, Gavin Gregory and the cast of the Milwaukee Rep's production of "Ragtime." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

"Ragtime" is a triumph

Almost any way you want to look at it, "Ragtime" is a love story.

The musical, adapted from the novel by E. L Doctorow, opened at the Milwaukee Rep this weekend.

The love in this show shines through the bigotry, evil, loneliness, sorrow and the step-by-step journey down the lane of the early 20th century.

Over everything is a love of America, both a love for what it already is as well as what it might well become.

"Ragtime" tells the story of America through three families, one wealthy in New Rochelle, one poor and black and in Harlem and finally a single Jewish immigrant father and his young daughter.

The love in this production is big love and the story is a big story. It would have been easy for Mark Clements, artistic director of the Rep and the director of this show, to get wrapped up in the bigness of it all.

I mean, when you are telling the story of the breaking of the bonds of rich whites, poor blacks and immigrant penniless Jews, you have bitten off a mighty big part of the history of this country.

It would also be easy to fall into the pedantic trap of trying to make sure the audience could pass the test being given after the show.

But Clements, a man in love with great stories and great music, wisely allows the story to tell itself. At no time is there a teacher asking us to raise our hand if we don’t understand.

Instead he allows the music to flow and to carry us back in time to a place we’ve only heard about. And the exuberance of this cast of wonderful singers and dancers gives us a show worth the time travel backwards.

Like any production this large, you tend to walk away with moments seared in your brain. Four characters stood out for me.

Carmen Cusak, who played the wealthy mother and Josh Landay, who played the immigrant father, each brought a sense of gravitas that surrounded the struggles each faced.

Their duet, late in the play after they meet by chance is haunting. As they stand on a balcony she watches her son and he watches his daughter as together they sing "Our Children." Rarely have I ever heard such a moving song about being a parent.

And after death and destruction have had their day, Michael Doherty, who plays mother’s younger brother and Gavin Gregory, who plays Coalhouse Walker, the black piano player, have a moment that probably sums up America better than I’ve ever heard it. Walker has fathered an illegitimate son and is trying to reclaim his place in the life of the baby. The brother has decided to join the black men in their rage of protest.

The two men sing to each other and Doherty sings: "We have different lives and faces, but our hearts have common places."

It’s that kind of duet that makes this production so very special.

It almost seems like it’s too big, both in terms of physicality and emotional wreckage, to fit into the confines of the Quadracci Powerhouse.

But Clements has kept a steady hand on this galloping steed and the finish line can’t be far away.

It would be easy to mention everyone who had a hand in this production but music director Dan Kazemi, choreographer Stephen Mear and a wonderful set design by Todd Edward Ivins deserve special accolades.

Ragtime runs through Oct. 27. Information is available at milwaukeerep.com.

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