Gary Gisselman admitted that it sounded strange. With 35 actors and seven musicians, the director said, his "Ragtime" at Park Square Theatre would be "a more intimate production." Gisselman, of course, was comparing his staging with the big-budget 1988 Broadway extravaganza.

Intimate or not, "Ragtime" is the largest production in Park Square's 36-year history -- in terms of people and money. Artistic director Richard Cook anticipates the endeavor will consume about 10 percent of Park Square's $2.7 million annual expenses -- and it is budgeted to lose money.

"It's one of those experiences that we agreed was worth bringing to the community," Cook said. "It is the kind of production that gives arts organization their energy -- that you're trying some things that are really audacious."

Seen in isolation, "Ragtime," which opens Friday on the St. Paul stage, might raise your eyebrows. Cook himself admitted he reconsidered the decision, but came to feel the venture makes sense in the context of Park Square's methodical growth strategy. There was "Love! Valour! Compassion!" in 1998, "Side Show" in 2002, "Democracy" in 2007 and even "August: Osage County" last fall. These were productions that marked progress either in the sheer size of the productions or the investment in actors.

"I've edited impulses before and said, 'No, not now' or 'No, not us,'" Cook said. "What's exciting about Park Square is that more and more I can say, 'Yes, we can and we should do that.'"

Unprecedented advance sales have justified his faith in the show, continuing a trend in which Park Square reports new attendance records and expanded donor support every year. In addition, the company has a $4.2 million capital campaign underway to build another theater in the Hamm Building.

Make sure story gets told

Daunting logistics aside, the challenge with "Ragtime," Cook said, is to protect what he calls a "really big story."

"Ragtime" is based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow. Set at the turn of the 20th century, it revolves around three New York families: suburban WASPs; African-Americans and East-European immigrants. Adapted by playwright Terrence McNally with music by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the musical swells with epic Americana -- equal parts joy and tragedy with a constant undercurrent of historic change.

The Broadway original, with a cast of 52, a 27-piece orchestra and elaborate sets, was a stunning monument to excess, and a national tour followed suit. A 2009 revival scaled things back.

Michelle Hensley and Ten Thousand Things Theatre Company demonstrated in a stripped-down 2005 production that the stories and the music at the core of "Ragtime" are what define the show, more than grand trappings. Cook agrees, saying the show's power often "comes down to key moments with one person."

Gisselman fell in love with the story when he read Doctorow's book shortly after it was published, and he coaxed as many of his actors as possible to read it.

"It's about racism, the difference between the wealthy and the poor, and immigration -- three problems that are still with us and probably will be for a long time," he said.

His Park Square cast includes Harry Waters Jr. as ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker Jr., Christina Baldwin and Lee Mark Nelson as Mother and Father in the suburban family, and Dieter Bierbrauer as the Jewish immigrant Tateh. Brittany Bradford plays Sarah, Coalhouse's love interest. Historic figures such as Emma Goldman (played by Kersten Rodau), Henry Ford (Jon Hegge) and Booker T. Washington (Shawn Hamilton) also show up. Michael Matthew Ferrell is choreographing, and Denise Prosek has the ambitious task of overseeing the music.

Casting began 10 months ago

Gisselman, a 50-year veteran of Twin Cities theater (sorry, Gary, but it's the truth), learned something about the realities of Park Square's relative position as it climbs the theater hierarchy.

"Most of the big shows I do are at the Guthrie, so it's not as hard to get actors," he said. "Here, they told me I'd better start auditioning in April and I said, 'You're kidding me.'"

He learned they weren't kidding when one of the people he wanted was committed already last spring.

"I'm happy with the cast, but it was a challenge to get the right ethnic composition in the chorus," he said.

The cramped rehearsal hall was another reminder that there is plenty of room for growth. Regardless, Gisselman said he enjoys being part of the ambitious project, calling Cook "cautiously experimental."

"They don't throw caution to the wind," he said. "They have been planning for this, and that is the hallmark of their stewardship for the theater."

For his part, Cook laughed as he said he is letting executive director Steven Lockwood sweat out writing the checks. If it is possible to be nervous and comfortable at the same time, that best describes Cook's mood as the show opens.

"It takes my breath away," he said, referring to the cost and scale. "You have to do some things that give you a chance to grow, and that's what this show is about."