Theater Latte Da's Ragtime
Ragtime undoubtedly has one of the most beautiful scores that has come out of Broadway in the past 20 years. After all in 1998 it won the Tony awards for Best Score, Best Book and Best Orchestrations. I have been carrying around this music with me for over ten years, listening to the soundtrack over and over again, but I had never seen a production until last night. Every time that I would listen to the soundtrack I would picture the show unfolding in my mind, and what I saw at the Ritz's theater is not what I had pictured, but it is impressive and important and a must see. One of the reasons that Theater Latte Da's staging of Ragtime is so different from what I imagined is because it is so much more simplified. The cast is 13 instead of 40+, and the stage is mainly bare, reutilizing set pieces for multiple purposes. And as someone said in the post play discussion that I attended, this allows the production to cut right to the major themes. Themes that are so important in this election season. Themes of racism and police violence, the struggles of immigrants, and feminism. These themes seem to fit perfectly into the conversations and issues of today, but Ragtime takes place at the turn of the century and is based on the novel of the same name written by E.L. Doctorow in 1975. You can't help but think while watching that these problems existed 100 years ago and are still as poignant today, will they always be problems? But the show does end on a hopeful note. I left the theater both reeling from what I watched but also hopeful for the future.
The staging and direction was extremely inventive. As I said set pieces are reused for multiple purposes. A piano becomes a car, and rolling staircases become ships. The actors as well serve in multiple roles. They appear as choristers in other character's scenes in order to give the full sound that so many of Ragtime's songs demand. But their roles as choristers also serve another more symbolic purpose, that director Peter Rothstein described in the post show discussion. We are all responsible for each other's stories. There is not a hierarchical difference between leading characters and choristers, they are all the same, all on the same level. The entire company is all strong but for me there are three standouts. David L. Murray Jr. as Colehouse Walker Jr, Sasha Andreev as Tateh and Britta Ollmann as Mother. In many ways these are the three central characters from each group represented in Ragtime; the rich white community resistant to change, the black community based in Harlem, and the newly arrived immigrants. Each of them delivered very genuine and emotionally sincere performances. Tateh's character transformation is the most visually apparent, but Sasha Andreev's performance gives Tateh heart that is apparent throughout his entire immigrant experience. Both Mother and Colehouse get their own 11 o'clock numbers that were each greeted with a lengthy applause. David L. Murray's rendition of "Make Them Hear You" was heartbreaking and you could tell it was reaching every member of the audience. Theater Latte Da's production of Ragtime is the story of America in 1906 and it is the story of America today. One that is very important to witness in this election season.
I will end with a line in Ragtime that particularly caught my ear, "Without art what is our existence but chaos?"