History repeats: 'Ragtime' is a timely classic with modern urgency

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'Ragtime' Dan Norman

Ragtime is about “a nation on the cusp of great change,” states Peter Rothstein, director of Theater Latté Da’s new production in a program note. Seen today, though, Ragtime makes American history feel less epochal than cyclical. From racist cops to frightened immigrants, the musical’s vision of American life in the early 1900s is painfully resonant with the reality we face over a century later.

For an epic historical pageant encompassing figures both factual and fictional, this musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel has proven surprisingly amenable to chamber-sized productions. Ten Thousand Things staged an acclaimed, intimate take on the show in 2005, and now Latté Da is presenting an only moderately less minimal Ragtime as the company’s first Ritz Theater production since it purchased the northeast Minneapolis landmark.

In the 20 years since its premiere, Ragtime — written by Terrence McNally, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens — has started to look increasingly like a contemporary classic. McNally preserves Doctorow’s sweeping tone while reining in his sprawling structure, sharpening the focus on the black pianist Coalhouse Walker (David L. Murray Jr.) and the affluent white Mother (Britta Ollmann) as twin moral centers around which the story revolves.

Rothstein’s precisely choreographed production honors that concentration on character, with a Michael Hoover scenic design that’s so subtly integrated with the Ritz’s unpolished interior that sometimes the set hardly seems to exist at all. Two rolling stairs carry actors in and out of twin doors positioned in the middle of the stage’s rear wall, with a piano doubling as Coalhouse’s shiny new Ford. A band, led by music director Denise Prosek, is completely hidden.

The story weaves several plot threads together, in a manner that could seem contrived if this stellar cast didn’t feel so organically connected. The child of Coalhouse and his lover Sarah (Traci Allen Shannon, luminous) ends up being cared for by Mother, whose husband (Daniel S. Hines) has just taken off on a polar expedition. Meanwhile, a Jewish immigrant of artistic bent (Sasha Andreev) is struggling to provide for his daughter (Georgia Blando).

Rothstein’s production has enough of the ol’ razzle-dazzle to carry off showboating numbers like Coalhouse’s “Gettin’ Ready Rag” and the darkly comedic “Crime of the Century” (with Emily Jansen, as Evelyn Nesbit, glibly singing on a swing). Then, however, the show clears the decks for poignant ballads that soar — notably the climactic “Back to Before” and “Make Them Hear You,” which Ollmann and Murray, respectively, perform with strong clear voices and rock-steady sureness of purpose.

It’s hard to imagine a more apt show to open Theater Latté Da’s new season. Highly entertaining and deeply moving, this Ragtime makes a case not only for itself but for musical theater as a means of communion and as a catalyst for action. Just in case you didn’t get the message, there are voter registration forms in the lobby.

IF YOU GO:

Ragtime
The Ritz Theater
345 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis
www.theaterlatteda.com
Through October 23


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