A powerful 'Ragtime' at the Ritz; Graywolf author is a MacArthur Fellow

Pamela EspelandMinnPost

September 27, 2016


Theater Latté Da makes more magic with less than almost any theater we know. We first saw this in 2005, when director Peter Rothstein staged Puccini’s “La Bohème” in the tiny Loring Playhouse. “Bohème” is a warhorse opera, with a large cast and chorus, 80-piece orchestra, grand costumes and sets. Rothstein pared down the cast and used a five-piece band: piano, accordion, guitar, violin and woodwinds. People who saw it still rave about it.

And now there’s “Ragtime,” a lollapalooza of a musical written for a large cast and chorus, dancers and orchestra. At the Ritz Theater, Latté Da’s new home in northeast Minneapolis, Rothstein tells the sweeping, epic story with 14 actors and four musicians. Michael Hoover’s sets are minimalist: gray walls and floors, three doors, a curtain, some crates, a few sticks of furniture and a pair of rolling metal ladders. There are rarely more than two props on stage at the same time. The rolling ladders become, among other things, gangways on ships and stands at a baseball game. A grand piano on wheels doubles as a Model T. Don’t worry, it works.

Everything about this “Ragtime” works, including the timing. The musical is based on the award-winning book by E.L. Doctorow, published in 1975 and set in the years 1902-1912. In 18 scenes and nearly 40 songs, this historical pageant tells the stories of three groups: upper-class white Americans, African-Americans and Eastern European immigrants.

Except for the costumes (by Trevor Bowen, who last week won the Emerging Artist Award at the Iveys), some of the events, and the famous characters who thread through the story – anarchist Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington – “Ragtime” could be set in 2016. It’s way more contemporary than it should be. In our world right now, and our country, and our political climate, it’s impossible to experience it solely as a period piece. Not when police officers shout “She’s got a gun!” before beating a black character. Or when wealthy white people sing of a once-ideal world where “there were no Negroes and there were no immigrants.” Or when they dream that “everything will be like it was – the same as it was before, when we were happy.”

The prosperous white family are Mother (Britta Ollmann), Father (Daniel S. Hines), Younger Brother (Riley McNutt) and Little Boy (Soren Thayne Miller). The African-Americans are Sarah, a poor washerwoman (Traci Allen Shannon), and the father of her child, ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (David L. Murray Jr.). The immigrants are Jewish-Latvian artist Tateh (Sasha Andreev) and his daughter, Little Girl (Georgia Blando). The cast are all terrific singers and utterly convincing in their roles, performing with clarity and passion.

As Mother, Ollmann is the story’s moral center, the character with the most accepting, color- and class-blind heart. Her performance of “Back to Before” toward the end of Act II is tremendous and shattering. So is Murray’s “Make Them Hear You,” the cry that echoes today in “Black Lives Matter.” That one caused a lot of sniffling in the theater. Have tissue handy for the end of Act I, for “Wheels of a Dream,” for the epilogue. Latté Da should leave the lights down just a few moments longer at the end, for the audience’s sake and the cast’s, because everyone needs time to pull themselves together.

This is such a powerful show. By peeling away the pomp and excess of a Broadway production, Rothstein gets to the core of “Ragtime,” a tale of family, humanity, and more hope than we probably deserve.

“Ragtime” continues at the Ritz Theater through Oct. 23. FMI and tickets ($35-$48, student rush $20, rush $24).