Despite having been a Twin Cities theatre-goer for years now, last night’s performance of Ragtime was the first time I had ever seen a show by local favourite Theater Latté Da. Nuts, I know, but at least I finally got there. And it seemed like fortuitous timing that I should finally see the much-praised company at their first performance in their new permanent home at the Ritz in northeast Minneapolis. It’s a neat venue, and the space seems both intimate yet roomy.
Ragtime is timely in a number of ways, speaking to civil unrest and political activism, not to mention issues of gender equality, immigration, and racial conflict. Scenes of police brutality were extra hard to watch in light of recent incidents, insults thrown at immigrants echoed things heard on the news, blatant sexism brought to mind comments I’ve heard about how a woman president would be unpredictable “because of her hormones”, and debates about what activism should look like bring to mind arguments surrounding Black Lives Matter and other racial justice groups. Whew. The musical’s source material, E.L. Doctorow’s book of the same name, is set in the early 1900s, was also published in 1975, so it is perhaps not quite as surprising that the stories are told in a way that look very familiar to our own lives. Still, there are definitely many moments in the production that leave one ruminating (and perhaps heartbroken) over how little things seem to have changed in over 100 years.
In case there was any chance people would miss the connections from the play to the present day, Latté Da takes the extra step of leaving voter registration cards in the lobby
for locals who aren’t yet signed up to vote in November.
Now, the musical itself tells the stories of three different families and how their lives intertwine as they make their way through the pre-World War I period. There’s the rich, white family who makes its fortune selling flags and fireworks; the poor, Latvian immigrant and his daughter who are quickly disillusioned of their dream of America as the land of opportunity; and black musician Coalhouse and his love, Sarah, who dream of a better world for their baby son. Mixed in are a host of famous historical figures whose paths cross the fictional characters’ in fascinating ways.
Traditionally, Ragtime is a big, Broadway production with dozens of performers and fancy sets full of moving pieces. This is a much more scaled down production, with 14 performers each playing multiple roles on a very smartly-done but relatively bare bones set. This is the only production I’ve seen, so I can’t compare, but I can tell you that this production doesn’t feel lacking in any way.
“Doesn’t feel lacking” is an understatement. It’s beautifully done, with sharp choreography and a good use of space. The story is expertly told, although I have some problems with it – mostly way too much “white saviour complex”, including a strange comparison between one family’s problems (police brutality and racism) and another’s (husband and wife growing apart). The play wraps up the loose ends with just a few too many convenient coincidences, which is a pet peeve of mine, although it does make the whole emotional roller coaster easier to handle.
But those are issues with a musical based on a book 40+ years ago, and this particular production is just lovely. The voices, oh, the voices! Can I name one person who didn’t wow me? No. It’s hard even to pick one standout, but it would have to be Traci Allen Shannon‘s Sarah, who did innocent joy and cynical heartache equally well. Equal to her talent was David L Murray, Jr as her love interest Coalhouse Walker, Jr. His is perhaps the most riveting and complex character, and Murray does a solid job bringing him to life.
I’m happy to announce I am joining the hordes of fans of Theater Latté Da.
Ragtime produced by Theater Latté Da runs September 21-October 23, 2016 at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Ave NE, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets are $35-48 (public rush, student rush, military, and group discounts available) at theaterlatteda.com. Pay-what-you-can, audio described, and ASL interpreted performances available.