Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The musical is based on the 1975 novel "Ragtime" by E. L. Doctorow. Doctorow's novel has an epic scope, and such tomes rarely transform successfully into musicals. For every Les Misérables, a dozen Doctor Zhivagos crash and burn out the gate. Ragtime's creative team was more than up to the challenge. The achingly beautiful music was written by by Stephen Flaherty, the highly literate lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and the coherent book that manages to seamlessly move among multiple plotlines is by Terrence McNally. All three won well-earned Tony Awards for their efforts.
Set in the first decade of the twentieth century, Ragtime revolves around three families. Father, Mother, their son Edgar, Grandfather, and Mother's younger Brother compose an upper class white family in New Rochelle, a safe, leafy New York City suburb. Father's wealth is derived from the manufacture of patriotic paraphernalia such as flags, buntings, and fireworks. He further fulfills himself as a hobbyist explorer, accompanying Admiral Robert Perry on his final attempt to reach the North Pole. Younger Brother works in the family business but is in search of a deeper purpose for his life.
The second family comprises Coalhouse Walker, Jr. a well-spoken ragtime pianist in Harlem; Sarah, a woman who fell deeply for Coalhouse but flees when she becomes pregnant with his child; and their infant son. Coalhouse's belief in the promise of America is epitomized by his purchase of a Model T Ford. Tateh (the Yiddish word for papa) and his young daughter form the third family. They are Jewish-Latvian immigrants fleeing pogroms that cost Tateh's wife her life. They arrive in America full of hope in the land of opportunity, unprepared for the destitution of Lower East Side tenement life.
Into the lives of the fictional characters, Doctorow inserted key historical figures of the era: financier J. P. Morgan, industrialist Henry Ford, educator Booker T. Washington, femme-fatale celebrity Evelyn Nesbit, firebrand anarchist Emma Goldman, escape artist Harry Houdini, and both Admiral Perry and his African-American first mate Matthew Henson. These iconic individuals impact the families' fates and fortunes in ways that might feel contrived if history did not bear out that such unlikely things indeed occurred. Their stories include the killing of innocents, unfathomable racial hatred, riots in pursuit of a living wage, tawdry amusements, a woman's conscience awakened, and a taste of the American dream.
The genius of Peter Rothstein's direction is to make this show, so enormous in its inception, as small as possible without losing plot, characters or feeling. Where the original 1998 Broadway production had 44 cast members, Rothstein has 14, with several smaller parts double-cast, and without an ensemble of singer/dancers. By making the show smaller, Rothstein maintains focus on the human dramas rather than spectacle. Everything in the show contributes to the journeys taken by this cast of characters, as they traverse the changing landscape of the American dream.
In keeping with this sharp focus, the stage at the Ritz is bare, with two industrial-style movable stairs serving as ships passing at sea, bedroom quarters, podiums for union rallies and other locales. A grand piano marks the era's ebullient creative spirit and doubles as Coalhouse's car, symbol of his place in the propulsive forward progress heralded by the new century.
The entire cast does wonderful work, making this truly an ensemble piece, but Britta Ollmann's performance as Mother is a revelation. She brings to life Mother's awakening from subservient wife to an independent woman. With her beautiful soprano, she delivers such character-driven numbers as "What Kind of Woman?" and especially, the 11'o'clock powerhouse "Back to Before" with emotion that holds the audience in a thrall. She sings the lovely "Our Children" with Sasha Andreev, as Tateh, and the two fill our hearts with hope in their vision, and sorrow for its unfilled promise. Andreev depicts the depth of Tateh's fear, hope, anger and love for his precious daughter. He and Daniel S. Hines, as Father, beautifully share "Journey On," as their two ships pass in the nightTateh's to America, Father's to the North Pole, and joined by Mother in a sublime meditation on the yearning that drives the human heart.
David L. Murray also shines brightly as Coalhouse. He conveys the dignity and honorable intentions of a man who has seen the world and is ready to stake his claim on life, only to have it stripped away by the brutality of racism and a justice system that is stacked against him. When he sings "New Music," "Sarah Brown Eyes," and the stirring anthem "Let Them Hear You," our spirits soar with his. "Wheels of a Dream," sung with Sarah, played by Traci Allen Shannon, is one of the most beautiful works in the score, and in it Murray conveys Coalhouse's enormous faith in America. Shannon is lovely as Sarah, and beautifully sings the haunting "Your Daddy's Son" to her newborn child. Though she does not fully convey a radiance to render Coalhouse's yearning for her as inevitable, she projects the fears of a poor black woman in the world of white wealth. Other notable performances come from Riley McNutt as Younger Brother and Debra Berger as Emma Goldman. In their two shared numbers"The Night that Goldman Spoke" and "He Wanted to Say"they lay bare the turmoil in Younger Brother's heart.
With the elimination of a larger ensemble, the show has only modest dancing, choreographed gracefully by Kelli Foster Wader. Denise Prosek, resident music director at Theater Latté Da, works magic drawing rich and varied sounds from a five-person band. Trevor Bowen's costumes are perfectly attuned to each character's station. Mary Shabatura's lighting works wonderfully to create places upon the bare stage, and makes effective use of silhouettes to frame the opening sequence. Simply put, everything in this production works.
Ragtime is a triumph. If you have seen it before, Theater Latté Da's production will provide a new lens to appreciate the power of its narrative. If you have not seen it, it will be a musically glorious, emotionally rewarding experience. As stated in the title number that opens the show, "It was the music of something beginning, an era exploding, a century spinning." That was 1906, but Ragtime is also 2016, and calls us to watch, listen, and reflect now more than ever.
Ragtime continues through October 23, 2016, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $35.00 - $48.00. For tickets call 612-339-3303 or go to theaterlatteda.com.
Music: Stephen Flaherty; Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens; Book: Terrence McNally, based on the novel "Ragtime" by E. L. Doctorow; Director: Peter Rothstein; Music Director: Denise Prosek; Choreography: Kelli Foster Wader; Set Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design and Engineer: Nik Tranby; Properties Master: Abbee Warmboe; Facial Hair Design: Tricia Stogsdill; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Fight Director: Annie Enneking; Technical Director: Stein Rosburg; Stage Manager: Tiffany K. Orr; Assistant Director: Eric Norton; Assistant Stage Manager: Amanda K. Bowman
Cast: Sasha Andreev (Tateh), Debra Berger (Emma Goldman), Georgia Blando (Little Girl), Benjamin Dutcher (Harry Houdini/Willie Conklin), Daniel S. Hines (Father/J. P. Morgan), Emily Jansen (Evelyn Nesbit), Riley McNutt (Younger Brother), Soren Thayer Miller (Little Boy), David L. Murray, Jr. (Coalhouse Walker, Jr.), Britta Ollmann (Mother), James Ramlet (Grandfather/Henry Ford), Traci Allen Shannon (Sarah), Andre Shoals (Booker T. Washington), Julia Fé Foster Warder (Skater), Noelle Renae Hunter/Dominic Tidmarsh-Kilander (Coalhouse Walker, III).