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Milwaukee Rep Strikes Chord with "Ragtime"

Milwaukee Rep

Government shutdowns and debt ceiling debates aside, attaining the “American dream” remains a goal for people of all political stripes in this country.

It’s been that way for decades, as the book – and the play - “Ragtime” makes evident.  The musical is set in early 20th Century America and follows the search for success undertaken by an Eastern European immigrant family, an African-American couple, and a well-off white family.

The musical is currently being staged to large audiences at the Milwaukee Rep.  Artistic director Mark Clements says it's  that enduring theme of the "American dream" that drew him to the play.

"We have an obsession or a fascination with it, because the 'American dream' means something different to all of us," he says. "There's an expectation that goes with that, and to a degree a certain amount of entitlement as well, because that's the way we're brought up, that if we work hard and we live our lives well, that we will be rewarded."

Clements says as an immigrant himself, the theme does resonate, which may explain why several of the Rep's productions feature similar issues.

"I’m interested in works, whilst being entertaining and fun, that can also add a few layers to us as a decent human being, make us think a little bit, broaden our horizons," he says.

But it's not just the show's thematic elements that are on a grand scale; the massive, moving scenery, period costumes and talented cast also add to the larger-than-life production.

"I think it's every actors dream to be a part of something as epic as this, if you're a musical theater actor especially," says  actor Gavin Gregory, who plays the role of Coalhouse Walker in the show. "To do something so sweeping and amazing and for them to take on something like this and give it what it needed, it's glorious."

The audience is appreciating the production value, Clements says.

"It's one of those shows, like 'Les Mis,' there are a couple of shows...that have people inadvertently leaping to their feet before the last note of the song is being sung," he says. "You have that, 720 people every night leaping to their feet. It's kind of cheering and applauding and crying and all of the above. That's ultimately the sweetest spot, that's the holy grail for us."

"Ragtime" runs through October 27th at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater.

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.