REVIEW: “Ragtime” at Barrington Stage

Review by Gail M. Burns

“You just sit there going, ‘This is our country as we know it.’ Black people are crying out that their lives matter. Women are saying, ‘I can never go back to before.’ Immigrants are saying, ‘What is wrong with this country?’ These are all lyrics from the show, and they’re all words from the television today…it really makes you think about where we are as a country and where we need to be and how do we get there.”

– Lynn Ahrens, lyricist for Ragtime, in a recent interview in The Interval

Immigrants are being openly discriminated against. Violence against black people goes unpunished. Women are fighting for their rights. The rich are getting richer. Workers are struggling for fair pay. Welcome to 1906.

That was the year that the house in New Rochelle, NY, owned by novelist E. L. Doctorow in the mid-1970’s, was built. And it was in that house he wrote Ragtime, named one of the best novels of the 20th century, which provides the source material for this musical.

At Barrington Stage director Joe Calarco and scenic designer Brian Prather have set this production in the attic of that handsome home in New Rochelle, NY. The stories that the mementos there provoke are at once immediate and of another time. They “hold the mirror up to nature” and we clearly see our reflection in our ancestors’ lives.

While Ragtime centers on three families – upper-middle-class white, immigrant, and black – it takes sweeping in the glances at America as a whole. Fictional characters mingle with real-life notables – Emma Goldman (Anne L. Nathan), Harry Houdini (Joe Ventricelli), J.P. Morgan (Allen Kendall), Booker T. Washington (Lawrence E. Street), Evelyn Nesbit (Leeane A. Smith), Henry Ford (Eric Jon Mahlum) – as they tell the story of our very recent past.

The upper-middle class white family do not have names, except for the youngest member, a little boy called Edgar (Elliot Trainor), which was Doctorow’s given name. Otherwise they are Mother (Elizabeth Stanley) who grows from a complacent wife to a more worldly woman aware of issues beyond her family sphere; Father (David Harris) a munitions manufacturer with a penchant for travel and a narrow view of the world; Mother’s Younger Brother (Hunter Ryan Herlicka) who is searching for something; and Grandfather (John Little) who is sadly underutilized after having one funny line in the opening number.

Father takes off for the Arctic with Admiral Peary and Mother makes an alarming discovery in her flower bed that brings the family in contact with a young black washerwoman named Sarah (Zurin Villanueva) and her estranged lover Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Darnell Abraham). Coalhouse is a successful musician, successful enough to buy himself a Model T Ford and set off to the suburbs to locate and reunite with Sarah, but their happiness is short-lived. Enraged, Coalhouse seeks revenge in a most violent and dramatic manner.

A Jewish widower from Latvia named Tateh (J. Anthony Crane) arrives in America on a “rag ship,” determined to make a new and better life for him and his Little Girl (Frances Evans). Tateh’s story is the one with a happy ending, although his early trials as an immigrant speak volumes about how Americans assimilate newcomers then, and now.

Elizabeth Stanley is her usual luminous self as Mother. I was interested in costume designer Sara Jean Tosetti’s choice to have her put on and remove her corset on stage, a poignant symbol of women’s literal bodily liberation from painful constraints more than a decade before the 19th amendment passed. Mother is a traditional woman of her time and socio-economic status, but she finds her voice and her backbone (hence no more need for a corset) during the course of the play, and she finds it through her mothering instincts.

Sarah, also, is a traditional woman, who longs for all that Mother has – a home, a husband, a family – but as Villneueva plays her she has internalized all the racial and gender hatred the world has heaped on her and vanished into herself. When she finds that her dream is within reach, she fights bravely for it, and pays the ultimate price. Villaneuva is a beautiful, willowy woman with a smile to melt your heart.

The final number of Act I is powerfully led by Allison Blackwell, in role designated only as Sarah’s Friend. It is a tour de force that will leave you in tears.

The two famous women in the show are the unconventional ones. Evelyn Nesbit (1884-1967) was the “It Girl” of the time. Having clawed her way up from poverty as to become America’s first super-model and then an actress, she became international celebrity when her insane millionaire husband killed the famous architect who had deflowered her, resulting in the “Trial of the Century.” There is no need to cast an actor who looks like Nesbit since few alive today know of her, but I was interested that Calarco cast the Barbie blonde Smith, who is very much America’s current version of feminine pulchritude, when Nesbit was a brunette beauty.

Nathan’s performance as Emma Goldman (1869-1940), the firebrand anarchist, is a stand out, and indeed she often seems to be the only character on stage whose world views make sense.

Abraham has the real star turn as the mercurial Coalhouse Walker, Jr. The role demands a strong triple-threat who can be convincing as a loving partner and father, as well as a cold-blooded killer out for revenge. Abraham delivers on all fronts.

Crane is also strong as Tateh. Parenthood and the succession of generations is an important theme in Ragtime, and Tateh’s relationship with his daughter is at the heart of the show. Crane is at his strongest in his powerful number in response to a threat against his daughter in Act I.

Child roles are often doubled, but Calarco has elected to have the same three children play the roles at all performances, and they do a fine job. Trainor has the most demanding role, and he brings to it the open enthusiasm of a rising sixth grader. A third generation Berkshire thespian, Trainor’s grandfather performed on the stage of the Union Street Theatre before it was acquired by Barrington Stage.

Ragtime is a powerful show. This is the third production I’ve seen and reviewed and I was still moved to tears on several occasions. Flaherty’s music will stick in your head and Terrence McNally’s book is full of moments that truly shock. There is violence and gunfire in the show, so if those things upset you stay home, but that would be the only reason to miss this glorious production.

The Barrington Stage Company production of Ragtime runs June 21-July 15 on the Boyd-Quinson Main Stage at 30 Union Street in Pittsfield, MA. Book by Terrence McNally; music by Stephen Flaherty; lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; directed by Joe Calarco, choreographed by Shea Sullivan; musical direction by Darren R. Cohen; orchestration by William David Brohn. Scenic Design by Brian Prather; Costume Design by Sara Jean Tosetti; Lighting Design by Chris Lee; Sound Design by Ed Chapman; Hair & Wig Design by Dave Bova & J. Jared Janas; Production Stage Manager Renee Lutz.

Cast: Darnell Abraham as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Allison Blackwell as Sarah’s Friend/Ensemble, J. Anthony Crane as Tateh, Frances Evans as the Little Girl, Matt Gibson as Willie Conklin/Ensemble, David Harris as Father, Hunter Ryan Herlicka as Younger Brother, Allen Kendall as J. P. Morgan/Ensemble, John Little as Grandfather/Ensemble, Eric Jon Mahlum as Henry Ford/Ensemble, Anne L. Nathan as Emma Goldman, Marie Putko as Kathleen/Brigit/Ensemble, Leeane A. Smith as Evelyn Nesbit/Ensemble, Elizabeth Stanley as Mother, Lawrence E. Street as Booker T. Washington/Ensemble, Elliot Trainor as Edgar, Joe Ventricelli as Harry Houdini/Ensemble, Zurin Villanueva as Sarah, Spencer-Mathias Reed as Coalhouse Walker III. Additional Ensemble: Christin Byrdsong, Danielle Lee James, and Alex Nicholson.

The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 8 and up. For tickets call 413-236-8888 or visit https://barringtonstageco.org/single-tickets/.

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