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Nathaniel Stampley leads a 'Ragtime' for our time

You won’t get a more vivid representation of white privilege than the one beginning the excellent production of “Ragtime” that opened Wednesday night, one hour south of Milwaukee.
In a cordoned-off space at the center of the in-the-round Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, an upper crust dressed in creamy whites lolls and lounges beneath their boaters and parasols as they lazily sing of blue skies, unruffled by storms. Director Nick Bowling couldn’t better illustrate what he writes in his director’s note: “White people in our country were and still are asleep.”

Not for long. 

As ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Milwaukee native Nathaniel Stampley is among those waking them up, when a contingent from Harlem dramatically enters the house and makes clear that black lives matter. Moments later, immigrants crash ashore and demand entry. Voilà: A musical two decades old and unfolding one century ago has suddenly become so 2018.
Although this big show seems made for a proscenium stage, Marriott’s in-the-round format actually helps it come alive: it makes one more aware of space, as that same vital piece of turf at the center of the house is continually contested.

In both its syncopated music and its continual focus on movement, “Ragtime” usually plays as a show about time: for all the hiccups along the way, it’s optimistic, progressive and patriotic, as the “wheels of a dream” spin forward and outward, moving from New York to California

But this “Ragtime” is less about time than space: who occupies it and who owns it, as well as how tall individuals stand within it.

Hence in this “Ragtime,” time doesn’t move forward but in circles, as we revisit and repeat the same sorry history. The past literally hovers above us, through a suspended series of objects – fragments from musical instruments, pieces of iconic buildings and monuments – suggesting how hard it is to move beyond the old music and sing a new tune.
Coalhouse tries, and Stampley stirs one’s soul and breaks one’s heart as he sings in his gorgeous baritone about a new day; when he does so alongside Katherine Thomas’ passionate Sarah, it’s hard to believe that day won’t dawn. But it’s not long before this man who lives for music is making his goodbyes, first to music and then to the world.
As the other two leads, Mother and Tateh will fare better. Kathy Voytko captures the sorrow of a conflicted woman who still occasionally misses her age of innocence, even as she embraces the future; a warm Benjamin Magnuson conveys the gentle kindness her husband couldn’t give her.

This newly constituted family occupies center stage at journey’s end, but will they keep it? In this “Ragtime,” the snarling racist who caused so much damage during the show remains on hand, still trying to take the wheels off the dream of a better world.

Nathaniel Stampley: It will come as no surprise to any Milwaukee theater patron that this magnificent actor once again demonstrates tremendous range. Stampley plays a character who seems cockily and jocularly self-assured when we first meet him; he then plunges toward darkest despair when delivering Coalhouse’s Act II soliloquy. Stampley evinces a similar transition from light to dark still later, when Coalhouse recalls meeting Sarah in a flashback and then tenderly sings “Sarah Brown Eyes” alongside her. When Coalhouse’s reverie fades, Stampley’s face registers the transition from dreamy peace to sadness and then anger, as Coalhouse remembers all over again what he has lost. It helps an audience make sense of the scope of Coalhouse’s revenge; it can feel disproportionate on the page, but not here on the Marriott stage. Instead I found myself wanting to join Will Mobley’s impassioned Younger Brother, enlisting in Coalhouse’s fight against a world offering few alternatives.

Forward Wisconsin: Speaking of Stampley and Mobley: They’re among several actors in this cast who’ve performed on Wisconsin stages. Stampley needs no introduction; neither does Mobley for those who regularly make the trek to American Players Theatre, where Mobley has appeared in ten plays, including this past summer’s landmark “A View from the Bridge.” Christina Hall, particularly moving here when her Emma Goldman speaks for a tongue-tied Younger Brother, was an excellent Mrs. Lovett in last year’s Skylight Music Theatre production of “Sweeney Todd.” The Marriott cast also includes onetime Milwaukee Rep interns Jonathan Butler-Duplessis (Booker T. Washington) and Elizabeth Telford (Maria in Skylight Music Theatre’s “The Sound of Music”) as well as Adam Monley (Father), who appeared as John Wilkes Booth in the Rep’s “Assassins.

Kathy Voytko: When I last saw Kathy Voytko, she was giving a Jeff-winning performance (opposite the Jeff-nominated Stampley) in Marriott’s ravishing production last summer of “The Bridges of Madison County.”

She and Stampley are now again playing the characters with the most texture and the longest dramatic arcs; Voytko is doing so by embodying a remarkably similar woman. As both the lonely Iowa housewife in “Bridges” and the lonely Mother presiding over a big house in New Rochelle, she is stuck in a supporting role in an old-fashioned domestic drama, with the husband calling the shots. While neither husband is a bad man, both are stuck in their ways and struggle with change.

In both plays, the outward bound journey toward freedom begins when the husband is himself away on a physical journey. In both plays, that journey involves sexual as well as personal liberation. In both plays, the past is treated with respect and even nostalgia – even as it’s made clear, in Voytko’s poignant rendition of Mother’s words, that one cannot go “back to before.” In both cases, one hears a top-shelf voice, mapping the geography of yearning.

There are many reasons to see this powerfully sung “Ragtime,” which does full justice to Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ great score. Voytko’s performance is near the top of the list.

Design: The cast of “Ragtime” includes 29 actors; in any production of “Ragtime,” the numerous narrative threads – mixing historical and fictional characters – are easily tangled. In theory, an in-the-round house format could exacerbate the problem; such a house doesn’t readily lend itself to the sort of straightforward presentation through which an audience can quickly sort and identify characters. Bowling and set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec go a long way toward solving this problem through a series of differently heightened platforms that can be raised through traps; when accented by crates and trunks as well as Jesse Klug’s lighting, one readily distinguishes the player(s) of the moment from everyone else, even in the long and crowded first scene.

Those same platforms, supplemented by benches, create straight lines when they’re needed (ship’s gangways, train platforms, an Atlantic City boardwalk). The storytelling is therefore clear, while reaping the advantages of an in-the-round format that I referenced above. 

Five Years: To bend a line made famous by Dinah Washington, what a difference five years makes. When the Milwaukee Rep staged “Ragtime” in 2013 – still the best production of a musical during Mark Clements’ tenure as Rep artistic director – there were grounds for the sort of celebratory optimism on display in that telling, which fought through to higher and more inclusive ground with a joy and verve anticipating “Hamilton.”

The Rep “Ragtime” was aligned with Coalhouse’s full-throated belief in a better America, as expressed through songs like “The Wheels of a Dream.” Watching Stampley sing this number Wednesday night, what came to mind was both the Rep production and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memories of feeling as though black America had finally made it when, in 2008, a black man was elected President of the United States: “That was how it felt to be black and, for the first time in our lives, proud of our country. Everything was bright. Everything was rising. Everything was a dream.”

Cut to Trump’s America, in which such dreams are just memories – much as Coalhouse’s dreams of a better world vanish before his eyes. The Marriott “Ragtime” hasn’t entirely broken faith with such dreams; Flaherty and Ahrens’ score won’t allow it. But as suggested above, this “Ragtime” is fully attuned to the way we live now; even its final tableaux of a multiracial family feels tentative. Maybe that’s why the topnotch performances from Mobley as Younger Brother and Hall as Emma Goldman – both leaving America behind in the show’s “Epilogue” – hit home for me as they did. As these two characters know and as this “Ragtime” makes clear, the ghosts of the past still hover above us and live among us – daily reminders that we’re still a long way from realizing what remains, even in the show’s last lines, somewhere over the rainbow.