America needs to see this musical.
America the beautiful, fragile, ugly bully needs to peer into the reflection that is “Ragtime” and contemplate how it is that a nation so full of hope and good heart has become so mean and angry.
“Ragtime” asks us to pause and consider why we are so fearful of the future as we are losing confidence in our past.
Theater Latte Da opened its 19th season Saturday in its new permanent home, the Ritz Theater in northeast Minneapolis, with a poignant revival of this musical adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s sweeping novel. Though set in fin de siècle New York, “Ragtime” is concerned with the same triumphs and tragedies that are in today’s headlines.
Director Peter Rothstein has scaled this once massive show into a stripped down ritual that makes what might have been nostalgia feel current and urgent. Eleven adults and three children tell the parable of our nation’s fraught psyche on a bare stage defined by a back brick wall (Michael Hoover’s set) and a rolling grand piano that represents ragtime, that syncopated music so full of the rhythms and contradictions in Terrence McNally’s script.
Mary Shabatura’s lighting scheme uses shadows and small instruments to fine effect, and costume designer Trevor Bowen works overtime to clad the actors for their double and triple roles.
“Ragtime” follows three families through the wrenching transitions of turn-of-the-century America. Father (Daniel S. Hines) is rich enough to seek adventure elsewhere, leaving the home to Mother (Britta Ollmann). Coalhouse Walker Jr. (David L. Murray Jr.) seeks reconciliation through music with his beloved Sarah (Traci Allen Shannon). Tateh (Sasha Andreev) is fresh off the boat from Eastern Europe and seeking his fortune.
“Ragtime” does not pretend these are terribly complex portraits. The show, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, is a pageant of metaphor — a string of vignettes stitched together to tell a larger parable that feels relevant: how the avarice of great wealth seeks its own adventure and comfort; how the aspirations of people of color denied justice can be radicalized into protest, and how immigrants ironically are the greatest believers in the American dream.
And there on the periphery are the celebrities who distract us from what is important.
Ollmann is the pure heart of this show as the sympathetic Mother who takes in an abandoned baby and comforts the child’s mom, played by Shannon with many layers of hurt.
Murray’s face changes into hard disillusionment as Coalhouse turns to terrorism. Andreev as Tateh and Andre Shoals as Booker T. Washington do excellent work, as do Hines and Riley McNutt as a disillusioned man of privilege. Kelli Foster Warder’s choreography uses silhouette to great effect.
Latte Da opened last season at the Ritz with the masterful “Sweeney Todd.” The cool virtuosity of that work can’t be matched by “Ragtime,” but what this musical illustrates so well is the heart that Rothstein and music director Denise Prosek have always brought to Latte Da. And it is more than mere sentiment. Rothstein convinces us that these are the raw and honest emotions of people caught in hard times. This elegant staging provokes and comforts.
America needs provocation and comfort right now. Desperately so.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune theater critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.