Review: 'Ragtime' at Barrington Stage Company A Relevent, Beautiful Musical
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — We were downright perplexed as we entered the theater.
How can they possibly turn that nearly empty stage into turn-of-the-century America in all of its complexity? We're supposed to be seeing the great, big musical "Ragtime," but all that is in front of us is a hint of a set bathed in old-fashioned sepia tones. We seem to be in a Victorian house, but there are just a few wooden chairs here and there, an old upright piano off to the right. Perhaps more furniture is under the old canvas tarps draped at the sides of the empty, slightly-raised wooden floor.
Slowly a young boy, who we learn is from a wealthy, suburban white family, emerges to read to us as Mother, Father, Grandfather and Younger Brother enter singing the up-beat title song. They are soon joined by the People of Harlem, who invented this toe-tapping, syncopated ragtime music. Next to enter are the immigrants, led by Tateh and his Little Girl. Soon the stage is filled with a huge cast – 22 strong – pouring out this irresistible song, and we can't stop smiling. The theater is suddenly huge. Another world.
And we know we're in for a magnificent musical treat.
The Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield has mounted many glorious musicals over the years, but "Ragtime" is arguably its most ambitious. It's an enveloping wingspan of musical theater, telling in music, dance and characters – whites, African-Americans and immigrants – the story of troubled American society at the turn of the 20th century. In its optimism, it also reflects the 1990s, when the show was written. The societal problems of "Ragtime" - police prejudice against blacks, prejudice against all immigrants, the privileges of the rich - remain the problems of today, which is why "Ragtime" is both deeply thought-provoking and spectacularly entertaining.
The story is based on E. L. Doctorow's award-winning, somewhat fantastical novel of the same title. We first meet Mother (a powerful, empathetic Elizabeth Stanley) as she bids goodbye to Father (David Harris, who has such a beautiful voice we wished he had more solos) as he departs for a year's voyage to the North Pole with Admiral Perry. Soon Mother finds a newborn black baby buried in her garden, and Sarah, the baby's mother (a lanky Zurin Villaneuva of beautiful face and voice) is brought to Mother's door by the police. Mother invites them both to live with her, her son, Edgar (a fine child-actor, Elliott Trainor) and her troubled Younger Brother (a most believable and touching Hunter Ryan Herdlicka).
Soon Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Darnell Abraham with a smooth baritone that is beyond fabulous), who has made enough money to buy a new Ford car that is soon to be trashed by bullying, Irish firemen, visits Mother's home to woo Sarah back and be a father to his son. Woven into the above is the story of Tateh (sung dramatically by J. Anthony Crane) and his Little Girl (an appealing Frances Evans) trying to make a living as Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side. We also meet some historical figures: Evelyn Nesbit (Leanne A. Smith, who makes her silly young character likeable and real even squeaking "wheee" dozens of times), Emma Goldman (a very strong Anne L. Nathan), Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Booker T. Washington (the talented Lawrence E. Street). The story is complex, but it flows quickly and is easy to follow.
Even with all the wonderful talent mentioned above and the terrific singing and dancing ensemble, a major standout of the production is the lighting, designed by Chris Lee. With no scenery to highlight the tone of the three groups, Immigrants, People of Harlem and the White family, Lee uses color to change the mood. In one wonderful song, "Back to Before," Mother is lit by a spotlight while several Victorian lamps glow in various spots on the stage. Not a lot of light, but we are bathed in warmth by the lamps, the performance and the song.
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty wrote the fabulous lyrics and music, respectively. Terrance McNally wrote the book. Joe Calarco directed, enlisting terrific performances from his entire cast and making the small stage feel enormous. Shea Sullivan provided the very creative choreography, Sara Jean Tosetti the lavish costumes – all 22 of them – and Brian Prather the scenic design. Ed Chapman enveloped us with his sound design. The 10-piece orchestra was led by Darren R. Cohen, who is also responsible for all the musical direction. (We could see him conduct throughout the show. A real treat.)
No detail is overlooked to communicate the story of "Ragtime." Little Boy plays with a wooden boat when his father sails to the North Pole. Mother puts on a corset representing her place in society and then removes it when Father is no longer around. Evelyn Nesbit can't ride on her famous swing, but she has a huge, red and white rocking horse. A huge thank you for whoever is responsible for using a recorded sound of gun shots rather than shooting a gun in the theater – a jarring, invasive, and as we can see from this production, totally unnecessary experience.
In spite of the societal troubles it conveys, Ragtime still ends in on a tone of American optimism: "When he (Coalhouse's son) is old enough/I will show him America. And he will ride, our son will ride,/On the wheels of a dream." Many of us couldn't help worrying whether, in a deeply divided, angry America, this optimistic tone could still ring true.
From its first syncopated note until its last, I just loved and admired this production of "Ragtime" that filled a nearly empty stage with a bygone world. Even a day or so later, I am still humming the title song and thinking about the show's provocative message.
"Ragtime" runs at Pittsfield’s Barrington Stage Company through July 15 only. Ticket information online.
Tags: Barrington Stage, local theater,