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Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013

The Rep’s splendid production of 'Ragtime'

Ragtime
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The Milwaukee Rep’s eagerly anticipated production of Ragtime lives up to its promise as an exhilarating, lavishly produced musical version of E. L. Doctorow’s much-praised 1975 novel. As Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements aptly demonstrates, it’s all in the staging, here in a glamorously mounted production furnished with colorful, eye-catching period costumes designed by Alex B. Tecoma. The book is by Tony award-winner Terrence McNally. The infectious score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty remains invariably sophisticated and scintillating throughout. The catchy, prevailing ragtime beat is sarcastically but amusingly described by one of the black characters as “coon music played by white folks in blackface.”

That being said, this is a serious show with more than its share of historical characters in a complex plot structure referencing the hardships and racial issues of the early-20th-century immigrant America, arguably at the expense of the traditionally light-hearted pace of musical theater. Clements avoids the pitfalls of earlier versions of the show (which tended to bog down) by interjecting fast-moving production numbers and eye-filling dance sequences to delight the audience before the drama sets in. We meet the notorious Evelyn Nesbitt, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan. Houdini enters hanging upside down from a suspended wire.

The narrative concerns three families, with Latvian immigrants and a couple from Harlem set against middle class WASPs. The African American issues involve death and degradation, but fine vocalization, particularly by Gavin Gregory and Jessie Hooker among a superlative cast, keeps the maudlin at bay and integrates well with the director’s view of colorful ensemble pieces at fast pace. The show is constantly exciting. It never flags despite its almost three-hour length.

Ragtime runs through Oct. 27 at the Quadracci Powerhouse. For tickets, call 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com.