Ragtime by Theater Latté Da

The Ensemble of Ragtime.

The Ensemble of Ragtime. Photo by Dan Norman

David: It is easy to see why Theater Latté Da chose this moment to mount their own production of Ragtime (running through October 23rd at their newly acquired Ritz Theater home). In times of civil unrest and political uncertainty, its themes of racial injustice and immigration anxieties resonate strongly with our contemporary realities.

Chelsea: So strongly, in fact, that it’s hard to believe that the show was written nearly 20 years ago. Intersecting and intertwining three quintessentially American stories from the turn of the twentieth century, Ragtime follows a few characters from each of three major people groups as reflections of that group’s experience: African Americans, Eastern European immigrants, and wealthy white families.

David: Sadly, it highlights that this country has yet to overcome many of the struggles it has always faced. And yet, despite the aptness of the themes, I can say with confidence after having now seen three productions, including this very inventive and astute rendition, that I am not a big fan of the show itself. Condensed from a sizeable novel by E.L. Doctorow, it is simply too noisy with plot, emotion, and characters to hit as deep a chord as it needs.

Chelsea: I definitely see what you mean, as Ragtime’s book by Terrence McNally is broad, with a number of primary characters each with involved arcs, but it generally really works for me. Despite a couple of odd character shifts and some unnecessary bits, I still find myself getting involved in the story every time I see it. Some of this may have to do with the incredible score (music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) and timely themes, and some may result from the arc of Mother, whose character most organically interacts with all of the other storylines and helps tie things together for me.

David: Her character is definitely the heart of the show and has the most fully fleshed transformation. And it doesn’t hurt that Britta Ollman imbues this figure with subtle and nuanced shifts throughout. Her showstopping, second act rendition of “Back to Before” is exquisite and utterly heartbreaking.

Chelsea: Ollman is fantastic in this part, and generally speaking, Latte Da’s production boasts fabulous performances all around from its fairly stripped down cast (most of the non-principal actors play multiple roles). Sasha Andreev beautifully captures the plight of the immigrant in Tateh’s every labored movement and seems to feel every wrenching note of his early song, “Success.” Traci Allen Shannon’s Sarah is warm, tentative, and expresses pain with poignancy in “Daddy’s Son.”

David: The show’s set (scenic design by Michael Hoover) is also stripped down and mostly bare, which somewhat counteracts the show’s busyness, utilizing a striking lighting design (by Mary Shabatura) to isolate moments and performances, making the occasionally bombastic plotting more personal. Most of director Peter Rothstein’s decisions indeed work for the best, stemming from a keen sense of space that creates some memorable vignettes along the way. That said, I did think that some of the ideas, such as wheeled scaffold staircases, created for some at times awkward movements despite their visual flair.

Chelsea: I thought the staircases worked well and their inauspicious nature focused attention on the actors and music rather than the surroundings—something I found extremely effective, especially considering the vocal talent on stage and Denise Prosek’s rich musical direction. As far as direction is concerned, I loved the ways Rothstein staged many scenes, from the use of silhouette throughout to echo Tateh’s artistic profession to a beautiful choice of timing to end Act I. Ultimately, that choice, like so many in this particular production, underlined the way this story mirrors contemporary America. Ragtime simply feels important.

David: Well, with its many emotional and musical crescendos, it certainly wants to feel important. And while I may personally desire more focused plotting, this production nevertheless managed to induce goosebumps at several key moments. In these moments, the show indeed felt essential and the strength of the production far overshadowed any flaws in the writing.

Chelsea: It’s absolutely worth seeing. Latte Da manages yet another first-rate musical experience, even if the book may not be as clean as some would want. But then again, neither is the American story.

David and Chelsea Berglund review movies on their site Movie Matrimony.

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