Theater Latte Da will be launching a new era when it opens its production of "Ragtime" this weekend. The longtime nomadic company recently bought the Ritz Theater in northeast Minneapolis.
"Ragtime" is an epic tale of America at the dawn of the 20th century. It's a time of change, of new ideas, industrial innovation and, of course, new music.
"Giving the nation a new syncopation, the people called it 'Ragtime!'" the cast sings in the prologue.
Based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel, the musical version of "Ragtime" hit Broadway in the late 1990s. It follows the story of a middle-class white family, an African-American musician and a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, all living in New York. Their tales unfold and entwine amidst the famous and the infamous of the time: Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan and Emma Goldman. It was also a time of unrest.
"Ladies with parasols, fellas with tennis balls! There were gazebos! And there were no Negroes!" sings the cast. "And everything was Ragtime!"
Demands for equality in the face of violent racism and anti-immigrant sentiment led to riots.
"I began reimagining it primarily because I was trying to find the right story to tell right now," said Peter Rothstein, artistic director of Latte Da.
Rothstein had been scouring the musical theater canon. With a new building to fill and a local community to serve, he had to meet many needs. He was "looking for shows that would work in an intimate space like the Ritz Theater, that were looking at issues of national identity around the election season," he said. "Looking towards our more immediate community around the role of civil disobedience towards racial justice.
"And I just kept coming back to 'Ragtime' as the perfect show for now."
Let's go back to that word "reimagining," through. The Broadway production of "Ragtime" was huge, with a chorus and dancers. For all its charms, the Ritz is no Broadway theater. Rothstein's "Ragtime" has been pared way down.
"Yeah, I think the original Broadway production has around 48 people, and we are doing it with 14," he said.
All while maintaining every big song and the show's epic span. Actor Sasha Andreev plays the Jewish immigrant Tateh. He said the Ritz is so intimate, performers are often just inches from audience members.
"I have to constantly remember to be as authentic as I can be on stage, because when the audience is right there, they can see you lie," he said.
Fellow cast members David Murray and Traci Allen Shannon agree. Murray plays Coalhouse Porter, a musician making a name in the Harlem nightclubs. Shannon plays Sarah, his lost love. He doesn't know she's had his child, and has been taken in by a wealthy white family.
Shannon said the show's intensity is heightened by the small size of the cast. She and David Murray said the depictions of police brutality are especially upsetting.
"These are some of the things that my parents and their parents talked about, and explained to us," he said. "The same stuff we learned in school, you know, black history. It just repeats, over and over and over."
Shannon agreed, but said while "Ragtime" explores historical ugliness, it also offers the hope that future generations will find a way forward. "Because that, I actually believe, is the promise of America," she said. "The coming together of these cultures and backgrounds and experiences and every voice being heard."
For Rothstein, "Ragtime" is just a beginning. He wants to use the Ritz as a hub to continue Latte Da's work of developing new musical theater. The company committed two years ago to developing 20 new musicals by 2020. He laughed and said he needs to get through opening first.
"The stakes feel high," he said. "I think we have been so fortunate to have this building and call this building our home that there is now a responsibility to shepherd it well."
But Rothstein is confident that "Ragtime" is the show that will declare the Ritz to be Theater Latte Da's home.