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THEATRE REVIEW: A singularly relevant ‘Ragtime’ at Barrington Stage

It's as though the tale of what makes an American what an American is needs to be retold intensely at least once a decade.

Ragtime
Book by Terrence McNally
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Based on the novel by E. L. Doctorow and the screenplay by Doctorow and Michael Weller
Directed by Joe Calarco 

“. . .and there were no Negroes here. . .” 

J. Anthony Crane as Tateh and Elizabeth Stanley as Mother. Photo: Daniel Rader
J. Anthony Crane as Tateh and Elizabeth Stanley as Mother. Photo: Daniel Rader

“Here” is New Rochelle and, back in 1904, there were no black “residents” of that Westchester County city unless they were servants, and no one paid much attention to them. Sarah (no last name) is such a servant. She has had a baby out of wedlock and has hidden it in a neighbor’s garden where it is found, Moses-like, by Mother, a white woman, upper class, genteel, high strung. Her husband, Father, has just left for a year’s trip to the Arctic with Admiral Peary and his assistant, a black man from Pittsfield, named Matthew Henson (whose Arctic outfits now belong to the Berkshire Museum). His race shocks Father who has no idea his home now houses two such people: Sarah and her baby. When he returns a year later, his home is being visited by the child’s father, a black musician named Coalhouse Walker Jr., a pioneer in the new music called ragtime.

While this sounds like the setup for a sweet, if quirky, musical romance, don’t let yourself be deluded. This 1997 musical is an in-depth examination of the variety of social struggles going on in America in the early part of the 20th century. There is romance, of course, but there is also social injustice, the rise of Socialism under the anarchist Emma Goldman, the union movement, the racial prejudice of the time, the influx of eastern European Jewish immigrants, the beginnings of the film industry, inter-racial marriage and opposition to the rule of Americans by the privileged, wealthy class of white MENDoctorow’s novel was written in 1975, filmed in 1981 and moved to the stage 15 years later. Oddly enough, and poignantly, little has changed in the deeper social issues and this show has a timeliness and timelessness that keeps us poised for the entrance of those folks we see far too frequently in our living rooms, thankfully on television and not in person.

Leanne A. Smith as Evelyn Nesbit. Photo: Daniel Rader
Leanne A. Smith as Evelyn Nesbit. Photo: Daniel Rader

“How can you tell an American? Has he any distinguishing flavour? Could you spot him on an elephant in Turkestan? Or floating on a raft fifty miles at sea? As you’d know a single leaf from a sassafras tree by its characteristic savour. . .it isn’t that he’s black or white. . .it isn’t that he’s short or tall. . .” is a lyric written by Maxwell Anderson to Kurt Weill’s music for “Knickerbocker Holiday” in 1938. It’s as though the tale of what makes an American what an American is needs to be retold intensely at least once a decade. “Ragtime” is the show that falls into that category for our summer season in the Berkshires. In the current production on the mainstage at Barrington Stage Company, it is very distinctly the correct choice. This presentation pushes all our buttons, amusing us, teasing us, testing us, devastating us with its brutality and then enlightening us with its sense of reason and humanity. Directed by Joe Calarco–who, for me, ruined “Kiss Me, Kate,” but who also thrilled me to the core with “Breaking the Code”–this show truly does entertain as its two hours and 46 minutes fly by, and it also chills me to the bone as its honesty grinds into my bones. It is a remarkable job of theatrical magic leaving little not done while providing superb musical performances by an overwhelmingly talented company.

Coalhouse Walker Jr., a character who is an amalgam of composer Scott Joplin and a host of other men of the period, is played by Darnell Abraham, who is an excellent singer and an even better actor – a romantic figure of a man whose possession of the stage in the second act is akin to meeting an angry Arnold Schwarzenegger in an alley. Twenty years ago this role was made unforgettable by Brian Stokes Mitchell, but forget Mitchell and embrace Abraham – there is a new possessor of Coalhouse.

Like Mitchell in his part, the role of Sarah won kudos and hearts for Audra McDonald but, in Pittsfield, we have Zurin Villanueva, whose softness and sensitivity give the role of Sarah an instant sadness and beauty that is nearly classical art come to life. Villanueva also has a lovely voice that she puts to good use in her brief songs and, in “President,” she makes a new mark with the anxiety expressed there. It is nearly impossible not to fall in love with this actress’ performance.

Anne L. Nathan as Emma Goldman. Photo: Daniel Rader
Anne L. Nathan as Emma Goldman. Photo: Daniel Rader

This show is peopled with wonderful actors. Mother and Father are played, respectively, by Elizabeth Stanley (in a knock-out performance) and David Harris (his character’s sour disposition felt so real in this actor’s delivery). Mother is the heroine of the drama and Stanley truly delivers as her character shifts and changes with the times and the circumstances. It’s beautiful work. Leanne A. Smith delivers real-life character Evelyn Nesbit with abandon and brutality: Brava! Anne L. Nathan’s Emma Goldman is not as strident as I’ve seen Goldman, but is still genuinely effective in this edition. Lawrence E. Street delivers nicely as Booker T. Washington, whose sanctimonious attitude makes fine points. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka is wonderful as Younger Brother, a character you love, hate, despise and want to emulate all at the same time. He makes us feel his anguish.

Alison Blackwell as Sarah’s friend delivers a magnificent rendition of the first act finale, “Till We Reach That Day,” which would stop the show cold if the show wasn’t already pausing for intermission. As Edgar, the son of Mother and Father, Elliot Trainor comes into his own in the number “What a Game.” Touching, effective and emotionally satisfying was the performance of Tateh, the Jewish immigrant, in the hands of J. Anthony Crane. A counterpoint character with important things to portray, he is also, incidentally, the romantic hero of the work once Coalhouse has moved from romantic to militant. Crane makes him loveable without overdoing it and keeps the advancing curiosity this character naturally possesses at a pace that keeps Tateh a part of the panorama rather than an intrusive figure. This is not an easy route to take, but he does it so well.

Darnell Abraham as Coalhouse Walker Jr. Photo: Daniel Rader
Darnell Abraham as Coalhouse Walker Jr. Photo: Daniel Rader

In this show there are wonderful songs with memorable tunes and a rhythm that shows off the pulse of the world in this time before World War I. Director Calarco makes use of the wonderful set designed by Brian Prather to present a period play as a play and not as a moving picture from the time. We are aware for a long while that these are actors getting their characters onto the stage. Sara Jean Tosetti obliges this concept with beautiful clothing absolutely right for each character. Most of them stay in the same outfits (which is a pity) but a few track their professional arcs with the right looks at the right time. Chris Lee’s lighting design is most effective when it shows us emotional input and sincerity. Ed Chapman’s sound design was pretty good, too, at least most of the time.

Darren R. Cohen’s musical direction was absolute perfection as his 10-piece orchestra managed to sound much larger and fuller. There is a lot of music in this show, not just the ragtime tunes, but also so much more and Cohen gives us the fun of Nesbit, the romance of Sarah and Coalhouse (“Wheels of a Dream” was very, very beautiful), and the period theatrical stylings of the time. The choreography by Shea Sullivan is both perfect period and perfect romance. The cast delivers Sullivan’s vision poignantly.

A big production of “Ragtime” seems to come along once every 10 years or so and we should be grateful to have the 20-teens edition here in the Berkshires. Looking for a good musical show, a political evening or just a forthright entertainment to alter the tone of your workweek, you can find that and more at Barrington Stage Company’s Mainstage musical “Ragtime.”

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Ragtime plays on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage at Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union St., Pittsfield, through Saturday, July 15. For tickets and information, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 236-8888 or go online to www.barringtonstageco.org.

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