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THEATRE REVIEW: ‘Ragtime’ then, ‘Ragtime’ now – at Barrington Stage

The powerhouses of BSC’s RAGTIME -- among a uniformly, vocally exceptional, large cast (20 adults) -- are African-American.

Book by Terrence McNally
Lyrics Lynn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Based on the novel Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow
Directed by Joe Colarco

Some observers of Broadway musicals, myself included, were always puzzled why RAGTIME garnered so many Tony nominations in its original 1998 run. Barrington Stage Company’s production leaves me still scratching my head.

Terrence McNally’s book, adapted from E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 sprawling historical fiction set in turn-of the-19th century New York, ambitiously runs three major plot lines — about a prosperous WASP family, an impoverished Jewish immigrant and daughter, and an unwed Black couple with infant child – linked with real characters like industrialist Henry Ford, financier J. P. Morgan, socialite Evelyn Nesbitt, anarchist Emma Goldman, and illusionist Harry Houdini. Through this kaleidoscope, McNally’s top-heavy book visits critical issues in American history — the empowerment of women, worker’s rights, slum poverty — but his lens focuses mostly on racial justice.

Photo: Daniel Rader

It’s fitting then that the powerhouses of BSC’s RAGTIME — among a uniformly, vocally exceptional, large cast (20 adults) — are African-American. A youthful Darnell Abraham, of stunning, clear, handsome baritone voice, is outstanding as Coalhouse Walker Jr., the Black piano man who plays ragtime (think Scott Joplin). He’s matched with a superb Zorn Villanueva, seen in SHUFFLE ALONG on Broadway last season, as Coalhouse’s lover, Sarah. But it’s Allison Blackwell, as Sarah’s friend, who defines the show’s highpoint with her powerful lead vocal in the spiritual, “Til We Reach That Day” that closes Act 1.

'Ragtime' at Barrington Stage. Photo: Daniel Rader
‘Ragtime’ at Barrington Stage. Photo: Daniel Rader

Choreography is limited in this RAGTIME and pretty much the domain of the African American cast. Choreographer Shea Sullivan creates some lovely stylized movement for the whole ensemble in the opening number and a rousing “Getting’ Ready Rag” with innovative dance vocabulary for the Black ensemble in Act 1 but there’s not enough of it. Brian Panther’s fixed set, envisioned as an attic, is shaped by three large suspended arched windows (more architecturally suggestive of church, bank or courthouse) with Victorian-period furniture and decorative objects scattered about (lots of lamps). Chris Lee’s lighting flatters this scenic design. Costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti have interesting textural appeal, besides being thoroughly character appropriate.

RAGTIME’ås score by Stephen Flaherty (teamed with lyricist Lynn Ahrens now on Broadway’s ANASTASIA), a mix of ragtime, gospel, and marches (think flag-waving John Phillip Souza), relentlessly propels McNally’s book with 32 musical numbers. Ahern works in some clever satire, especially in “What a Game,” an ostensibly cheery but rather dark take on the all-American sport of baseball.

Musical director Darren N. Cohen masters Flaherty’s score as energetically he did Sullivan’s THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE last year at BSC, but between McNally’s very busy book and the non-stop, almost repetitive, parade of vocal numbers, it’s a wonder director Joe Calarco keeps it moving, uninspired as this RAGTIME often is, to an inspirational conclusion. All the white characters move on to a better life, but the Blacks don’t “reach that day” — they’re still holding the short end of the American Dream. As the French say, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”


RAGTIME at Barrington Stage through July 15. For tickets and information consult the Berkshire Edge Calendar, contact Barrington Stage, 413-236-8888 or


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