Rep's 'Ragtime' unlike anything you'll see

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

September 26, 2013


WAUKESHA - I am still reeling from the production of “Ragtime” I saw recently at The Milwaukee Rep. I’m sure my review will never capture the experience. I could look into my dictionary of synonyms for ideas - stunning, exceptional, powerful, intense, incredible, amazing, inimitable.  None of them need apply. They all fall short.

Many musicals I’ve seen - and I’ve seen many of them - are entertaining to be sure. But many of them also seem somewhat fake and forced. Characters are talking to each other, and all at once one or several of them starts singing, and a full orchestra suddenly shows up to accompany them. It’s magic and often quite satisfying.  We suspend our disbelief and enjoy the genre.

“Ragtime” does not exactly fit that pattern. Here, the music and the narrative, even the astounding choreography, all flow together organically. 

The characters, especially Mother, Younger Brother, Tateh and Coalhouse, seem like genuine people struggling to find their way. History comes alive, and we see connections between the past and the present, we reflect upon the miracle and the travesty of America, we feel hope and despair, joy and desperation.

We are moved. Not just by the dazzling choreography, the soaring music, the jazzy ragtime rhythms, the versatile set design. We are moved to tears by the beauty and the horror, the ramifications of change, and the effort it takes to try to make sense of it all.

Special mention must be made of the sterling performances of Carmen Cusack (Mother) and Gavin Gregory (Coalhouse). Their contributions cannot be measured or adequately described. Josh Landay (Tateh) and Michael Doherty (Younger Brother) are also very convincing in their roles.

I can’t begin to credit all the people who are responsible for this extravaganza, this rich feast for the eyes and ears, the emotions and the mind. I must praise director Mark Clements, who orchestrated it all. Also E. L. Doctorov, whose novel inspired the musical, composed by Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics). 

Also, choreographer Stephen Mear, musical director Dan Kazemi, set designer Todd Edward Ivins and costume designer Alexander B. Tecoma should be applauded. This list only touches the cadre of artists responsible for this polished, exuberant production.

If you want to be reminded of the beginning of the 20th century - immigration, industrialization, assimilation of various ethnic groups, and changes in fashion, music, modes of travel and entertainment - and some of the seismic changes that evolved, get your tickets now. A show of this magnitude and excellence is rare, and I say this in a mecca of good theater offerings. 

“Ragtime” runs through Oct. 27 in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre, 108 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. For tickets and show times, call 414-224-9490 or visit