Chicago Theatre Review
A Wheels of a Dream Production
Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ epic musical, with a book by Terrence McNally, is based upon the sweeping, historical 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow that depicts the challenges and changes that America witnessed at the turn of the century, set against a newly evolving style of ragtime music. Doctorow created a cast of fictional characters drawn from three different ethnic groups who interact with several real historical figures of the period. The result is a musical valentine to the American Dream that paints a colorful portrait of the nation on the brink of change.
Coalhouse Walker, a ragtime pianist from Harlem represents African Americans; Mother, the matriarch of an upper class suburban family exemplifies the affluent Caucasian group; and Tateh, a Jewish widower from Latvia typifies the masses of destitute European immigrants pouring through Ellis Island searching for a better life in America. Their stories all begin in isolation from each other, but eventually they intersect until, by the final curtain, the three groups have melded into one. These imaginary characters and their families exist along side of famous historical folks, such as Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan and other celebrities from 1906. Their journey toward change and understanding is what electrifies this much-accoladed musical (the 1998 Tony winner for Best Book, Score, Orchestrations and Supporting Actress), making it a popular choice for theatre companies the world over.
Mark Clements, the Rep’s Artistic Director, has accepted the challenge to stage this daunting musical that examines such universal themes as prejudice, segregation, class distinction, denouncing the status quo and seeking a better life. Choregrapher Stephen Mear has choreographed the variety of numbers, ranging from the titular ragtime, cakewalks, marches and gospel, with both period creativity and a contemporary consciousness. His work especially stands out in the difficult “Opening,” “Crime of the Century,” the “Atlantic City” filming sequence and, most especially, his human automaton “Henry Ford” assembly line number.
Although I missed Broadway’s more realistically stylized sets, Todd Edward Ivins’ re-imagined scenic design wisely says period, while allowing this show, with its multiple locales, to transition smoothly from a North Pole-bound ship to a New Rochelle mansion, from a Harlem speakeasy to the Morgan Library. His movable latticework of staircases, balconies and skylights provide an infinite variety of elevations for showcasing Clements‘ talented, 35-member cast, while allowing room for the musical’s most important scenic element, Coalhouse’s beautiful Model T Ford.
Special effects that include Jeff Nellis‘ outstanding lighting (particularly the Act II explosion that almost blinds the audience and his gorgeous, sparkling Atlantic City Boardwalk), illusionist Houdini’s suspension in mid-air while chained and straightjacketed and vaudeville star Evelyn Nesbit’s velvet swing that soars out over the audience make this production as polished-looking as any found in New York. Alexander D. Tecoma’s minutely-detailed period costumes add yet one more element to this carefully detailed, gloriously executed production. And while the original boasted a 26-member orchestra, Dan Kazemi’s somewhat abbreviated accompaniment sounds full and lush.
The excellent cast is led by several outstanding performances. Carmen Cusack is magnificent as Mother. From her carriage, to her subtle expressions, she is everything this upper class lady needs to be. And when she sings, the heavens open. Her clear diction and phrasing drive songs like “Goodbye My Love/Journey On,” the beautifully touching “Our Children” and her eloquent anthem to change, “Back to Before.” She’s matched by Gavin Gregory’s multi-layered Coalhouse Walker. Always the gentleman, even when pushed to the brink, this talented actor tells the story of a man that would make even the most hardened heart crack with sorrow. His powerful vocalization of songs, such as “Wheels of a Dream,” (that never fails to bring tears to my eyes) “Sarah Brown Eyes” and the best eleventh hour song ever written for a show, “Make Them Hear You” are alone worth the price of admission.
Other standouts include David Hess’ thankless role as Father, Josh Landay’s nicely-rounded Tateh, Michael Doherty’s ultramodern Younger Brother, Carl Clemons-Hopkins as a beautifully sung Booker T. Washington, Kelley Faulkner’s spirited Evelyn Nesbit, Sam Strasfeld’s flexible and well-vocalized Harry Houdini and Bethany Thomas’s dramatically voiced Sarah’s Friend. The only disappointment came in Jessie Hooker’s Sarah. While playing her character with appropriate tenderness and empathy, the role’s more legit vocal demands just didn’t suit Ms. Hooker’s more pop/rock belt.
Well worth a trip to Milwaukee, Mark Clements has directed a gorgeous production that maintains the integrity of the original production while bringing an energy and drive, particularly in its tempos and choreography, that’s as contemporary as today. If, like me, this is your first visit to Milwaukee’s flagship theatrical company, I’m quite sure it won’t be your last.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented Sept. 17-Oct. 27 by the Milwaukee Rep Theatre, 108 E. Wells St., Milwaukee, WI 53202
Tickets are available by calling 414-224-9490 or by going to email@example.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.