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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Ragtime’ at Tanglewood—Even better than before

Most striking about “Ragtime” is how it, sadly, is more relevant today than it was in its premiere 25 years ago. With topics of racism, women’s inequality, ant-Semitism, economic and legal injustice, the story holds a mirror up to a contemporary society that seems to be regressing rather than progressing.

If there is a highpoint to the Berkshire cultural season, it was realized Saturday evening in the Tanglewood shed with the majestic concert version of the 1998 Broadway musical aptly entitled “Ragtime: The Symphonic Concert.” The Tony Award winning score, with a 2020 commission from the Boston Pops, was re-orchestrated by Kim Scharnberg, working with composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens (who won a Tony award for the score) and playwright Terrence McNally (before he died in 2021).

The well-known plot pivots around three different families in 1902: a prosperous white family in New Rochelle; a separated Black Harlem pair of lovers and their newborn; and a Lower East Side widower and daughter, immigrant Eastern European Jews. Mother (an amazing Elizabeth Stanley, lately of “Jagged Pill”) in the well-to-do family seeks personal autonomy—at a time when women didn’t have the right to vote. The love that the Black Sarah (the captivating Nikki Renée Daniels) and Coalhouse Walker Jr. (a commanding Alton Fitzgerald White) share cannot surmount the injustice they face. The impoverished Jewish immigrant Tateh (the charming John Cariani) challenges the odds in attaining the economic opportunity that attracted him to America.

The reorchestrations, performed by the full complement of the Boston Pops Orchestra and masterfully led by the inimitable Keith Lockart, illuminate the score in almost unimaginable ways. The score sounds different; it is not characterized by the musical patina that defines Broadway scores. The idioms which inspired Flaherty’s composition are still there—the ragtime (obviously), gospel, ballads—but the textures are deeper, the tones richer. Consequently, Aherns’ lyrics emerge freshly, too

Stage director Jason Danieley, working with a stellar principal cast of nine and a stunning ensemble of 21, is a marvel at creating stage movement across the wide shed stage. Some of the numbers are ingeniously choreographed, like the baseball male ensemble “What a Game” (in which maestro Lockhart had a nifty cameo). Wisely, Danieley lets the semi-staged show—scenes uncluttered by props or excessive costuming but informed with projections of documentary photographs—secure its dramatic ballast in character and song. Sarah and Coalhouse’s “Wheels of a Dream” breathtakingly concludes Act 1. The gospel number “Til We Reach That Day” finds glory in sorrow. And Elizabeth’s Stanley’s performance of “Back to Before” (the show’s 11 o’clock number in Broadway parlance) is shattering, the best vocal interpretation of it I’ve heard.

Most striking about “Ragtime” is how it, sadly, is more relevant today than it was in its premiere 25 years ago. With topics of racism, women’s inequality, ant-Semitism, economic and legal injustice, the story holds a mirror up to a contemporary society that seems to be regressing rather than progressing. This splendid “Ragtime” concert magnificently—yet painfully—dramatizes how we remain encumbered by an ugly past; it also majestically—and powerfully—inspires us to keep turning the “wheels of the dream.”

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The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.