Review: Barrington Stage Offers a Stirring ‘Ragtime’
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, July 10, 2017
One of the best things about summer is the opportunity to get out of the city and take in some quality regional theater. Fortunately, there’s ample opportunity to do so at any of the first-rate theater companies that are well within a day’s drive of Manhattan.
The Berkshires in particular feature some of the best places outside New York City to experience a wide variety of quality productions, from Shakespeare and Company to the Berkshire Theater Group to the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
The Barrington Stage Company, in particular, has a notable knack of putting on top-notch productions with Broadway-caliber talent both on stage and off. First up for the Barrington this summer is Ragtime, the 1998 musical with a score by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, and a book by Terrence McNally. The Barrington has a history of bringing a considerable amount of heart to classic musicals, which makes Ragtime an eminently suitable choice. The show is deeply moving and dramatically compelling, despite its numerous flaws.
The score to Ragtime is easily the finest of many fine scores from Ahrens and Flaherty, replete with full-throated anthems, rich character songs, and more than its share of exquisite, tear-inducing moments, including the songs “New Music,” “Gliding,” and “Our Children.”
Based on the eponymous novel by E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime features a clash of cultures at the start of the 20th century, with Jewish immigrants and African Americans coming into conflict with the more established white “Americans.” (Who are in truth no more American than anyone else in the story.) McNally also peppers in such real-life figures as J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, and Harry Houdini.
In fact, therein lies one of the flaws of Ragtime, the sheer number of characters involved. Sure, both J. P. Morgan and Emma Goldman actually become part of the story, but Henry Ford and Harry Houdini come off as mere period decoration.
The rather intense plot of Ragtime features quite a bit of emotional sturm und drang, prompting Ahrens and Flaherty to liven up the proceedings with comic numbers, many of which feel superfluous, especially “What a Game.” The number is clearly intended to give the Father character a bit more development, but it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. Likewise extraneous, or at least questionable, is the “Crime of the Century,” for another real-life character, the cloying Evelyn Nesbit.
And yet, on the whole, Ragtime works, and splendidly so, mostly because of the sheer narrative impact of the story and the emotional power of the lion’s share of Ahrens and Flaherty’s impassioned score.
For this production of Ragtime, director Joe Calarco has utilized a production concept that places us in the attic of some Victorian house, with cast members entering and going through the various trunks and artifacts, then beginning the tell the story. It’s a compelling concept, but Calarco doesn’t sustain it throughout the production. The conceit pretty much disappears after the opening, except in the sense that we’re still physically in the attic as the show progresses.
Calarco does succeed, however, in bringing out richly affecting characterizations from his talented cast. Zurin Villanueva as Sarah has a wonderfully animated and emotional quality, making Sarah sympathetic, despite her shocking actions toward her newborn son. Elizabeth Stanley as Mother (the white characters, significantly, have no specific names in the show), demonstrates once again that she’s one of the most versatile performers on the professional stage, equally adept at comedy, as she was in the Barrington production of On the Town that moved to Broadway, as she is here with the serious drama of Ragtime.
The gentlemen of the cast are likewise effective. David Harris manages to elicit some genuine pathos for the stolid and unsympathetic Father character. As Tateh, J. Anthony Crane may not have had the vocal range to do Tateh’s songs full justice, at least not the night that I saw the show, but he more than makes up for this with his endearing and layered portrayal of the poor immigrant who goes on to make it big in Hollywood. One minor blip in the otherwise excellent cast was Darnell Abraham as Coalhouse Walker. Abraham definitely had the physical stature and vocal gravitas for the role, but not the nuanced realism necessary to turn Coalhouse from an antihero to a sympathetic human being.
Ragtime runs at the Barrington Stage though July 15th, 2017. It’s a piece, and a production, that’s well worth your drive north, or wherever you make be coming from.
Ragtime presented by Barrington Stage Company at Boyd-Quinson Mainstage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts through July 15, 2017. Music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, book by Terrence McNally. Directed by Joe Calarco. Cast: Elizabeth Stanley, Darnell Abraham, J. Anthony Crane, David Harris, Zurin Villanueva, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, Lawrence E. Street, Matt Gibson, Allen Kendall, Joe Ventricelli, Eric Jon Mahlum, Leanne A. Smith, Allison Blackwell, Anne L. Nathan, John Little, Frances Evans, Elliot Trainer, Robb Shermann, Christin Avante’ Byrdsong, Alex Nicholson, and Danielle James.
Cover: Cast of ‘Ragtime;’ photo: Daniel Rader.