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Thursday, June 29, 2017

RAGTIME - at the Barrington Stage Co. - Pittsfield, Massachusetts

JT Lynch photo

Ragtime, now on stage at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is a musical for our time, eerily so in that it is about the early years of the twentieth century, its Broadway production winning a Tony in 1998, from a novel by E. L. Doctorow published in 1975.  Time is as much an element in this show as place.

In a wild parade that brings together our most personal controversies of the fabled “melting pot,” a maelstrom of vignettes weaves the main characters of an African-American family, a European Jewish immigrant and his daughter, and an upper middle class WASP family.  The triumphs, the traumas, and the lessons not yet learned are striking reminders that we have evolved only a little.

The production is vibrant and entertaining, with direction that makes the most of the unique attributes of this kind of montage storytelling—with luminaries  including Houdini, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbitt and others wandering through the tale.  It helps to be familiar with the history of this period before World War I, because the intelligent script fortunately does not “dumb down” the material, and the audience must be sharp to catch all the references as we are shown pieces of a great puzzle that makes up America at this most exciting period.

The large, multigenerational cast is excellent, both featured players and ensemble work seamlessly in multiple roles.  Especially noteworthy was Darnell Abraham as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., the Harlem ragtime piano player who finds love, success, and heartbreak in a society that has not advanced as quickly as he has; Zurin Villanueva as Sarah, Coalhouse’s love and the victim of tragedy.  Both were deeply moving in expressing their love, their dreams and goals, their heartache, and thrilled the audiences with their powerful voices.

J. Anthony Crane as Tateh was especially effective in his scenes as the struggling, frequently despondent immigrant who later finds a new life in ways he had not imagined.  Elizabeth Stanley carried much of the story as Mother, the WASP wife and mother who discovers that she is, in some ways, bound by greater limitations in her role in society than the ignored African Americans and despised immigrants.  In her empathy for them, she will break loose her own bonds.  Ms. Stanley’s performance was captivating, every glance and movement was nuanced, and her vocal abilities brought applause from the audience after her anthem “Back to Before.”

David Harris as Father, and Anne L. Nathan as Emma Goldman gave strong support in pivotal roles.

Some fine moments:

The above-mentioned “Back to Before” number with the stage lighting dimmed save for a collection of turn-of-the-twentieth-century table lamps lit, casting a yellowish glow that seemed to evoke parlors of the period where a woman both reigned and was prisoner.

“Our Children” with Ms. Stanley and Mr. Crane on a beach watching his daughter and her son playing, and a sudden move toward the apron of the stage as if to pull their kids from danger made us nearly rush forward with them; until they pulled back, smiling, as if the imaginary near-fall was avoided.

The use of strobe lighting to create a zoetrope effect to symbolize Tateh’s new career in early silent movies was very clever.

The final moments of the play are a silent tribute/prayer as the children of the three families stand together and we see they are the future.  More than that, since we can look back on the period in hindsight, we understand, wincing, that their promise of a better life than their parents did not always ring true.  However, they are somehow our children now.  That is the beauty and the majesty, and the magic of theatre.  The audience’s standing ovation was well deserved.

The book is by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.   The show was directed for the Barrington Stage Company by Joe Calarco, with musical direction by Darren R. Cohen, and choreography by Shea Sullivan.

The theater lobby, with a nod to the subject of immigrants, has a map of the world posted, and invites patrons to put pins in the countries of origin of their families.  In many ways, this earnest production is a reflection of our times as much as it is of the years between 1906 and World War I.  Our fascination with the scandals of celebrities—as with Leanne Smith, who charmingly plays the ever effervescent and opportunistic Evelyn Nesbit—as well as being introduced to new societal forces through music—in 1906 it was ragtime; today it could be rap or hip-hop—demonstrates that the beginning of the so-called “American Century” was not so different from today.  Like the coming and going of Halley’s Comet, are the echoes of that former time cyclical, and the social, economic, and political turmoil we face today possibly signal an end to the American Century?

Or are we just in a, to take a modern phrase, “rebooting” phase?  This thought-provoking musical will likely do much more than entertain you.  Go to the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and treat yourself to this wonderful show. 

Ragtime continues through July 15thFor tickets and info, see this website.

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