"Ragtime" has its say at Barrington Stage


PITTSFIELD — In taking on the ambitious Terrence McNally-Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens musical, "Ragtime," for Barrington Stage Company, director Joe Calarco has wrangled a behemoth of a show into a haunting, memorably transcendent theater experience that is at once as expansive and epic as its framework and as intimate as the intensely human stories that fill that grand tapestry that is the United States.

Set in the years between the turn of the 20th century and the beginnings of World War I, "Ragtime" interweaves the stories of a WASP family in New Rochelle, a Jewish father who has emigrated to the United States from Latvia, accompanied only by his 6-year-old daughter and a suitcase; and a black musician from Harlem named Coalhouse Walker, whose own dreams of achievement curdle into the worst nightmare.

Based on E.L. Doctorow's novel, "Ragtime" begins with Father (played with compelling and poignant resonance and depth by David Harris) preparing to leave his upper middle class family — Mother (a luminous Elizabeth Stanley); their son, Edgar; and Grandfather (John Little) — to join Admiral Perry's expedition to the North Pole.

That sense of journey, of reaching out for something more resonates through all of the principal characters in "Ragtime" as, over the course of the musical's two and three-quarters hours, characters come in, and out, of their own. "Ragtime" is the story of those journeys, those comings-together and breaking apart, often with violent consequences; the story of a nation at a time of huge immigrant arrivals as America built a crazy quilt tapestry; a time in which fear of an invasive Other took stronger hold.

The threads begin intertwining when Mother unearths, literally, a black baby who's been abandoned just under the surface of the earth in Mother's garden. She rescues it, takes it in, as she does the baby's mother, Sarah (a pitch-perfect Zurin Villaneuva). Mother nurtures both baby and mother. When tragedy strikes, Mother makes the decision to keep the baby, against the demands of authorities and the wishes of her husband, who has returned from his year-long voyage to a situation that is well beyond his comprehension and tolerance. Father's effort to reconcile what seems irreconcilable is integral to "Ragtime."

Mother keeps a steady hand on the home while her husband is away; steadying finances; nurturing Sarah and Coalhouse through their courtship; worrying at times about her sibling, Younger Brother, a tortured young man who, as played, convincingly, by Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, has the aspect of a moth drawn to a flame.

And then there is Coalhouse himself — Darnell Abraham in a performance that values character and dimension over showmanship — a decent man from Harlem; an ex-stevedore with gift for playing piano, especially this salty, fresh new music called ragtime that is all the popular culture rage. He wants what everyone wants — a family, stability, a life. He is cruelly reminded of the formidable odds against him when he runs afoul of a bunch of Irish Catholic firemen who make their disgust for the color of Coalhouse's skin all too evident. When Coalhouse seeks justice from the local police and municipal clerks and officials, he runs smack into institutional corruption and bigotry. For all his determination to live a decent life with Sarah and their baby, he becomes radicalized when tragedy strikes. At once, all bets are off for a man who figures he has nothing to lose.

"Ragtime" is a big, bulky, at times weighty, show, especially in the second act. The presence of historical figures — robber barons Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan, anarchist Emma Goldman, illusionist Harry Houdini, showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (a neat characterization by Leanne A. Smith) who was at the center of a tragic romantic triangle involving her lover, architect Sanford White, and her millionaire husband, Harry Thaw — feels gratuitous at times, even if they help establish a broader social context..

Calarco has set "Ragtime" within a warehouse attic — brilliantly designed by Brian Prather and lit by Chris Lee. The production begins with Abraham popping up through a trap door center stage. He is followed, one by one, by Stanley, Elliot Trainor who will play Mother's son, Edgar, and J. Anthony Crane, who will become Tateh, the Latvian Jew. They explore the confines, picking through objects, donning articles of clothing. As they shift into "Ragtime's" signature opening number, the rest of the 20-plus ensemble drifts onstage, dressed in period — spirits — and they bring the newcomers in. Past and present become one.

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Even when the material threatens to expand beyond its boundaries, Calarco's production remains tight, focused, clean, whole, full.

Flaherty and Ahrens' Tony Award-winning score is among the richest written for Broadway and here it gets full value, and then some, under Darin Cohen's masterly musical direction. The singing is as nuanced and expressive as the performances. Shea Sullivan's choreography is integral to the production's blend.

Calarco's casting is impeccable. There is not a weak link anywhere. The characterizations throughout run deep..

Crane tempers Tateh's desperation, fear and frustration with endearing self-effacing humor and audacious charm, especially when, purely by chance, he stumbles onto his future. Harris is a marvel as Father in a revelatory performance that, rather than settle for stereotype, is determined to explore, discover, render.

Abraham also has a keen sense of boundaries. He tracks Coalhouse's journey carefully, with dignity and passion, and holds the stage with authority and authenticity.

And then there is Stanley, whose portrayal of Mother is a beyond-words model of subtlety, nuance and grace. She has a quiet underlying passion that comes to the fore in her show-stopping second-act solo, "Back to Before," as Mother reflects on a time when choices and expectations, roles, were clear, "I was content," she sings, "A princess asleep and enchanted." This is neither lament nor regretful sentimental longing for what once was. Rather, her "Back to Before" is a passionate anthemic recognition that the world is changing and what once was will, for bad or for good, never be again.

"Ragtime" had a respectable run of 861 performances in its first go-round on Broadway in 1998. A revival in 2009 lasted only 65 performances. The musical has been infrequently produced since.

At Barrington Stage Company, Calarco makes a strong, convincing case for a lyrical, haunting musical that looks at the worst of America and the best; the darkness and the light and comes down, in the end, on the side of light.

This production is a splendid way to get to know a show that is well worth knowing.

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212


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