We don’t have to wait weeks until the coronavirus outbreak exacts a toll on the Minnesota theater community. I saw it in real time on Friday when I tried to buy a few tickets for that night’s preview of La Bohème at Theater Latté Da, hoping to catch the reimagined opera before its inevitable postponement. In the morning, they were 100% sold out. And by early afternoon, the company had announced that night’s performance, one day before what should have been opening night, would be the last until April 1 — if it reopened at all.
Undeterred, I planned to call the box office after work since I expected at least a couple cancellations. It never even went that far. Already by 5 p.m., their online ticket portal showed 10 open seats, so I snapped up three for my girlfriend, brother, and myself. But in the back of my mind I worried that by the time we drove to the Ritz Theater, they’d have pulled the plug. After all, the Guthrie, Hennepin Theatre Trust, Minnesota Orchestra, and others had canceled shows immediately, alongside the Europe travel ban and national state of emergency.
I didn’t expect the intersection of 13th and University in Northeast Minneapolis to be bustling — especially so early in the evening and with the return of freezing temps — but on Friday it was eerily desolate. We had our pick of street parking spots. A lone smoker leaned against the brick facade of the Sheridan Room. The 331 Club looked deserted, but the outer door stood open as always underneath the awning. The night’s bill, however, scrawled across the door in their signature multi-colored chalk, had a few asterisks:
“Come in, wash your hands, join us, we got a shiny new sink; unfortunately no music tonight =( … but we’ll still have trivia @ 7 pm; (We’re bleaching everything A LOT).”
While my girlfriend and I stood under the Ritz marquee, the clouds violet in the gloriously late 7 o’clock sunset, we only saw two couples shuffle inside. When my brother arrived, we half jokingly touched elbows in greeting, knowing full well we were about to sit in close quarters with strangers for the next two hours, all inhaling, exhaling, clapping, laughing, and sniffling, if not outright crying (it was La Bohème, after all).
Only after would I realize, scrolling through social media, that many Minnesotans across the state were also participating in last hurrahs at diners, watering holes, and movie theaters, trying to fill up both the financial reserves of their local businesses as well as their own emotional reserves.
The theater’s golden lobby was as warm and welcoming as always — the box office attendant was comfortingly Minnesotan, apologizing for the slow printer eking out our last-minute tickets, two dapper older men in scarves chatted over cups of wine, and young thespians huddled together laughing, oblivious to those around them, as they always seem to be — but there were signs of something amiss as well, if you cared to take a closer look. The staff all wore gloves, small bottles of hand sanitizer dangled off purses, and as we walked into the theater and up to our seats after the house lights flashed, it quickly became clear that the empty chairs, a couple dozen of them at least, would remain that way.
Noticing these vacancies, an enterprising young woman in the balcony sped down the stairs, just as Rodolfo (played that night by Phillip Takemura Sears) walked onstage, to commandeer a spot closer to the action. An usher approached — seemingly to ask if that was indeed her seat as printed on her ticket — but eventually gave in. If the coronavirus gets worse, that woman will be just fine.
If you’ve been to any Theater Latté Da productions in recent years, you know they’re masters of urgency, crafting theater that feels relevant to the point of galvanization, whether through updating classic musicals like Chicago or simply choosing neglected properties that illuminate our times like Bernarda Alba. It was immediately evident that director Peter Rothstein, who is also the company’s founding artistic director, was attempting this feat once again with La Bohème; instead of setting Giacomo Puccini’s beloved opera in 1830s Paris, as traditional productions do, he moved the setting forward a century to the period of Nazi occupation.
His reasoning was “to bring a specificity to the dramatic action, to raise the stakes,” according to a letter in the program. This, as it turns out, wasn’t even necessary; with the stakes raised in the life of every audience member, actor, crew member, musician, and staffer, on the last night before the Ritz — and theaters across the state — would go dark indefinitely, La Bohème played as it never has before, and never will again.
In the opening scene, the philosopher Colline (Rodolfo Nieto) bursts in on his Bohemian friends Marcello the painter (Tony Potts) and Rodolfo the poet. His first line? “Signs of the Apocalypse begin to appear.” That got a few extra laughs. After they sing about being frozen to the bone, their fourth roommate Schaunard, a musician, joins them, bringing in provisions, but not allowing them to stuff their faces because they’ll need them “for the dark and gloomy days in the future.” (If this sounds familiar, it’s because La Bohème is the inspiration for the musical Rent.)
And of course, the opera ends with Mimi (Corissa Bussian) slowly succumbing to an unspecified illness. But I’d bet money no one left that night with Rodolfo’s lament ringing in their ears.
As my brother said during intermission, the music was like a balm, and I’d venture to guess just about everyone else felt the same. Katherine Henly as Musetta had the audience in the palm of her hand as much as her on-again, off-again lover Marcello, and together their warm, heady voices washed over us. The scaled-down six-piece band, playing new orchestrations by Joseph Schlefke through a large window on stage left, evoked the balcony bands that are popping up around Italy. And Bussian and Takemura Sears, tragic though their love story is, cut through the fog of breaking news, and even distracted from the the supertitles projected above the stage — their renditions of Puccini in the original Italian calmed my nerves more than a bottle of wine, or the Castle Danger Cream Ale I drank through Acts 3 and 4, ever could.
Wherever you stand on the topic of standing ovations, whether they’re given too freely or not freely enough, Friday night at the Ritz was one of the real ones, one of those rare instances when the audience doesn’t peek over their shoulders to make sure others are getting up too, one of those moments where “leap to their feet” isn’t hyperbole. Though the cast never left the stage and the lights only flickered off for a moment before coming back on for the curtain call, winter coats, programs, and purses were flung to the floor with abandon and the audience was already out of their chairs whooping and whistling as much as a full house, and then some.
As we walked out of the theater, through the throng waiting for the cast to emerge, we had a stranger take our photo in front of the humongous red “Ritz” letters in the entryway, and then we hugged goodnight.
Theater Latté Da
Performed at The Ritz Theater
345 13th Ave. NE
Minneapolis, MN 55413