Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Ragtime
Barrington Stage Company
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Fred's reviews of The Birds and Fade


Zurin Villanueva and Darnell Abraham
Photo by Daniel Rader
Ragtime, at Barrington Stage Company through July 15th, is emotionally exciting and sometimes even gripping. It is more than ably directed by Joe Calarco, who utilizes both imagination and idea. As it benefits from musical direction provided by Darren R. Cohen, this particular version is close, intimate, and still fully resounding. It is very much a fulsome story of three families who strive, during the early part of the 20th century, for something better in life. The award-winning musical clearly draws keen focus upon prejudice and its implications, still relevant to this very day. The Barrington Stage performance and creative team most effectively present a grand-scale musical in poignant and exhilarating fashion. This show is, for sure, a primary go-to during early summer.

The play opens as Father (David Harris) explains that he is headed for the North Pole. His family includes Mother (wondrous Elizabeth Stanley in the role), Younger Brother (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka), Grandfather (John Little), and Edgar (Elliot Trainor), a little boy. Mother will take care of things in New Rochelle and off he goes. She sings to her husband, "Goodbye My Love." The heightened focus of this resplendent production is Darnell Abraham in a triple wow performance of Coalhouse Walker, Jr.. A musician based in Harlem, Coalhouse loves Sarah (Zurin Villanueva). Meanwhile, Tateh (J. Anthony Crane) is a Jewish immigrant from Latvia who has the difficult task of trying to survive while living in the Lower East Side and cares for Little Girl (Frances Evans). Tateh will draw silhouettes, create flip books and try, eventually, to make money from a more complex picture genre.

Every so often, actual personages out of history, such as Emma Goldman (dynamic Anne L. Nathan), appear. In her case, she espouses a new radicalism called socialism. A squeaky, delectable Evelyn Nesbit (Leanne A. Smith) provides comic levity, and Harry Houdini (Joe Ventricelli) also comes around in addition to other non-fictional people.

The pivotal, cogent story of Ragtime revolves around Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Sarah, and Sarah's baby. The infant was discovered by Mother early on outside her home. Coalhouse and Sarah come together toward the conclusion of the first act. Performers Darnell Abraham and Zurin Villanueva thrill the audience with a stirring rendition of "Wheels of a Dream." Previously, Coalhouse purchased a Model T Ford; it is subsequently destroyed by firemen. In a case of mistaken identity, Sarah is pummeled and she perishes. The first act concludes with "'Till We Reach That Day," performed with soul and heavy heart by Sarah's Friend (Allison Blackwell) and mourners. By now, one attending this event has already experienced, during its first hour and a half, rapturous and penetrating musical theater.

Ragtime boasts exceptional music composed by Stephen Flaherty which combines sharply and with great warmth with complementary lyrics penned by Lynn Ahrens and a pertinent, socially proactive book by Terrence McNally. Joe Calarco, at the helm, envisioned the show within the confines of the BSC mainstage. Set designer Brian Mather opens up the performance space, which includes a rear wall of red brick. Darren R. Cohen conducts 10 musicians and this component is integral to the production's success.

Those singing out a sometimes pulsating storm, however, deserve highest praise. Abraham is strong, passionate, and ever convincing as Walker, Jr. Stanley (who has been featured at Barrington Stage, with great success, twice before) is compassionate and loving as Mother. She and Crane, as Tateh, fuse voices in the lovely second act duet, "Our Children." Here, J. Anthony Crane's singing is his best; other times, he isn't quite on this level. Abraham and Villanueva immediately follow with "Sarah Brown Eyes."

Not to be ignored are such impressive company production numbers as "Ragtime" at the outset, and the Epilogue finale. The show finds a neat balance between smaller cast songs and numbers bidding full ensemble participation. The cumulative result of individual and group efforts is one golden evening of musical theater. This is a handsome rendering of Ragtime.

Ragtime continues at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts through July 15th, 2017. For tickets, call (413) 236-8888 or visit barringtonstageco.org.


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