Ragtime may be the largest play ever staged at Park Square Theatre, but it is dwarfed by the original Broadway production from the 1990s. Gary Gisselman, the veteran director helming Park Square's version, knows that well.
"I'd seen the original version on Broadway, and it was just huge. I was overwhelmed, and taken with it. I never thought I would be directing it -- I thought it was too large for anyone in the Twin Cities to stage. Then, about a year ago, Richard Cook [Park Square's artistic director] called and asked if I would be interested in directing it," Gisselman says.
Though the scale has been reduced for Park Square, there are still 35 actors in the company, and a staging that needs to bring the sweep of the material to life. With three interlocking stories, a multitude of historic characters, and a panorama look at American life at the turn of the 20th century, it could easily turn into spectacle over substance.
Gisselman knew that stripping down the material could work. He had seen Ten Thousand Things -- the definition of "stripped down" in the Twin Cities -- produce the piece. "It was cut down, but the power of the story was still there," he says.
A lot of the work began long before rehearsals, as Gisselman collaborated with the show's designers to find the appropriate scale for the piece. "We wanted to tell the entire sweep of the story, and keep it as intimate as we could," he says.
"I've always worked this way. The designers bring a lot to the table, and a good production is always like that. Everyone in the cast has things to add. It's not just my concept up there, we are there to find the play," Gisselman adds.
The company includes Harry Waters Jr., who plays ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker Jr., Dieter Bierbrauer, Christina Baldwin, Brittany Bradford, and Lee Mark Nelson.
"We have a really strong cast, and it turns out that Ragtime is a lot of people's favorite play. They feel it is trying to say something more than a lot of shows," Gisselman says.
With its examination of the immigrant and African-American experience, Ragtime still resonates to this day. "It deals with wealth and inequality; race and immigration. Sound familiar?" he says. "I like the idea that these issues are being discussed in the theater. And the music in this just lifts it."
IF YOU GO
Park Square Theatre 20 W. 7th Place, St. Paul
In previews through Thursday. Opens Friday and runs through February 19
For information and tickets, call 651.291.7005 or visit online.
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