Friday, April 27, 2018

Ragtime at Asolo Rep, Part II

Next up at Asolo Rep is the musical Ragtime based on E.L. Doctorow's book of the same name. The Broadway production 20 years ago had a cast of more than 50 actors and a full orchestra. Director Peter Rothstein had the vision--and the chutzpah--to scale the show down to a manageable size for regional theaters. At a recent panel discussion featuring Rothstein, choreographer Kelli Foster Warder, Asolo Rep Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards and playwright Terrence McNally, Rothstein talked about his approach. (Check out Part I of this blog for McNally's recollections of how the original production of Ragtime came to the stage by clicking here.)

Rothstein characterizes his re-imagining of the musical as the equivalent of a "chamber setting." The musical has been pared down to three interconnected stories of a Jewish immigrant coming to America, an African-American musician living in Harlem and an affluent white woman from New Rochelle. The tale is set in the early 20th century. Responsibility for bringing these stories to life falls to 13 adult actors, four child actors and nine musicians.

"Responsibility" is the key word here. In this version of the show, the chorus has been eliminated. Instead, the actors seamlessly move from performing a lead role to being a member of the supporting cast.

Kelli Foster Wardell, Peter Rothstein and Terrence McNally
"Everyone is responsible for each other's narrative," Rothstein commented. "It's a level of democracy befitting of the story."

Upon hearing this, McNally commented he was "getting goosebumps." He later said he felt this version of the show was going to "teach me what is in my own work."

The choreography is an integral part of the story rather than a "dance break." And so Warder and Rothstein have worked hand in hand since the show's initial production at Theatre Latte Da in Minneapolis. (Rothstein and Warder also brought the musical to 5th Avenue in Seattle.)

McNally shared this collaborative approach was also adopted in the original production, with director Frank Galati and choreographer Graciele Daniele working in tandem. He noted that rehearsals for musicals are often conducted in two rooms -- one for the actors/singers and another for the dancers. At Asolo Rep, as on Broadway, those rehearsals have been combined.

As to the timeliness of the show, Rothstein said he has often been asked whether the show has been updated.

"Sadly," he said, "there is no need." He noted--spoiler alert--that the character of Sarah is killed by the police at the end of Act I. When rehearsals began at Theatre Latte Da, Philandro Castile had been shot by a Minneapolis police officer just two weeks earlier. One can only imagine the impact that event had on both the performers and the audience.

Rothstein returned to the idea of responsibility, broadening it to the obligations of the citizenry at large. "We are all responsible for each other and our stories," he said. "Our responsibility as artists is to remind people of this."

Ragtime will run from May 1 - May 27 at Asolo Rep. Click here to see a sneak preview of the show and hear from Rothstein and some of the actors.  I cannot wait.

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