A Latvian man with an unusual name and even funnier accent faces scorn as an interloper, even as he imagines making it big in America. An African-American family longing for justice and truth has an encounter with the police that ends tragically. And a family of white suburbanites despairs about the state of the nation.
These are not people being held up for discussion in this year of presidential politics and Black Lives Matter. They are characters in “Ragtime,” the big musical by composer Stephen Flaherty and librettist Lynn Ahrens being revived this weekend by Theatre Latté Da.
The show is set a century ago, but its animating questions seem as urgent as ever as some folks question whether the American experiment is being torn beyond repair.
“Even though the show is historical fiction, we’re reminded that history repeats itself,” said Sasha Andreev, who plays Tateh, the Jewish immigrant.
“I wish certain scenes didn’t remind me of things I’ve recently seen on the news,” said Traci Allen Shannon, who plays Sarah, a young black mother.
The sweeping 1996 musical, based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, is a forbidding project to tackle, not least because of its scale. On Broadway, it had a massive cast of 30-plus.
Director Peter Rothstein has changed things up for this “Ragtime,” which opens Friday for a five-week run at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis. Originally, the show suggested the segregation of early 20th-century life by having three ensembles represent the black, white and immigrant worlds.
Rothstein has distilled the cast to 11 adults and three children. The change is made not by economic necessity but by aesthetic considerations. He hopes to show the promise of the nation even as he blurs the lines between these cultures.
The actors welcome this integrative approach, in which all are onstage in supporting roles.
“It’s a reminder that in our country we do have the opportunities to lend our voices to the telling of each other’s stories,” Shannon said. “In some ways we’re seeing some ugly moments in the show, as we are in the world, but there’s a lot of beauty and promise there.”
The cast includes David Murray, a native of Jackson, Miss., and New York transplant who is much buzzed about in the Twin Cities. (He will play Prince Charming opposite Shannon in “Cinderella” at Children’s Theatre later this fall.) Murray plays Coalhouse Walker, Sarah’s love.
“If you’re an African-American man, this is one of those bucket-list heroes,” Murray said. “But beyond the personal level, he’s someone with character and strength who is always seeking justice.”
Some of the “Ragtime” actors have found parallels between their lives and those of their characters.
Andreev, who emigrated from Russia in 1990, recalls that, like Tateh, he was mocked for his accent. “I spent many years trying to escape that accent, to assimilate and blend in,” he said. “I wanted to pass as an American. That’s what I share with a lot of immigrants.”
But his kinship to the character goes beyond that obvious commonality: Tateh becomes a successful film director. “In my own family, there was a lot of pressure to do something else that my family would see making money,” he said. “I pride myself on the fact that after 26 years in this country, I make my living as an artist.”
For Shannon, the connection is motherhood.
“Sarah is a new mother with a tragic story — I’m a new mother with a lot of joy and love in my life,” she said. “In some ways, it’s challenging because the show has an autobiographical style. A lot of the characters are narrating themselves and telling their own stories. So, you identify deeply with your character.”
She invoked the song “Wheels of a Dream,” a song that Coalhouse sings to his new son, to express the sentiments shared by all parents:
I see his face, I hear his heartbeat, I look in those eyes. How wise they seem. Well, when he is old enough, I will show him America. And he will ride on the wheels of a dream.
“All these characters have children — that right there is a sign of hope, of believing that there’s a future,” Shannon said, alluding to the issues roiling this election season. “I have a child. I have no choice but to be hopeful.”