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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review

Things will never be the same. — Mother
The Company (photo credit: Daniel Rader)
Fin d'siecle 1900's in New Rochelle, New York… undercurrents of impending change and upheaval shimmer just out of sight in a population jostling to a different musical ragtime syncopated beat.

Barrington Stage Company excels in mining the American musical theater for gems which upon re-examination seem more relevant and meaningful to today's audience than when first created. Ragtime, based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel, convulses with the story of America at a crossroads of startling and irrevocable change. Beautifully imagined by director Joe Calarco, Shea Sullivan's choreography and Darren R. Cohen's musical direction, the disparate elements are smoothly integrated into a richly detailed historical revisitation of a past whose concerns have become even more contemporary than Doctorow could have imagined.

An attic trap door admits performers in modern dress looking to reconnect with memories from each person's familial past. As an actor picks up an object, there is a transparent costume change and voila! It is early 1900 and the story begins.

Such a simple and elegant concept of scenic design by Brian Prather is what persists throughout the rest of this production's enchanting staging. Actors carry chairs or trunks which evolve into other pieces. Everything is seamless and fluid like time itself.

A Victorian doll house on a table reminds us that this is New Rochelle of the elite with comfortable lives where there were "no negroes" except as servants. A lacy parasol appears and we are once more in a time period when upper-crust women were pampered, admired and captive in their similar doll-like houses. The props create a subliminal symbolism and the play deepens through this richly layered ambiance lit by Chris Lee in the conflicting light of the times.

When Father (David Harris) sails to the North Pole with Admiral Peary on a rich man's childlike adventure, Mother (Elizabeth Stanley) glides across the stage with a toy schooner. In "Goodbye My Love" Elizabeth Stanley's lilting voice regrets the isolation of her life. Father fails to comprehend how his household will have changed in the year he is off playing at explorer. On his return his wife will not be the woman he left nor will his complacent and ordered life greet him once more.

The production ebbs and flows as the tide of a new century is preparing to sweep away the status quo. Though the novel centers on a wealthy family whose fireworks and flag business is the basis of affluence in a simpler time, they act as a magnet for the violent forces of change swirling throughout America; the musical emphasizes the collision of disparate social threads of the smug establishment, desperate immigrants, disenfranchised African-Americans – and forces of the larger world swirling and vying for prominence. What year is it again?

Calarco's staging affords equal importance to each societal segment's concerns as they separate and collide. The central story and stars of the show are Darnell Abraham as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. the musical syncopation genius and Zurin Villaneuva as Sarah, his lover.

Mother discovers Sarah's illegitimate newborn buried in the garden and rescues the infant and his shattered mother from disaster. As Sarah heals and begins to accept the baby she sings with utterly beautiful sensitivity one of the most heartbreaking ballads of the show, "Your Daddy's Son."

The white bread serenity of New Rochelle is shattered. Father returns to find Sarah being courted by a determined Coalhouse playing a new style of music in his parlor while Mother helps care for Sarah's baby. To say that Father is dumbfounded is an understatement- His son is wearing long pants, Mother's brother is stalking the notorious Evelyn Nesbit (The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing and Stanford White's mistress) while flirting with Bolshevism. His wife has opinions and expresses them. Even worse, a proud, accomplished black man is driving a brand new Ford to his house every day to the consternation of the neighbors. This could have been a comedy but darker shadowy influences await the protagonists of the opening scenes.

In a parallel plot line a Jewish immigrant, Tateh, (J.Anthony Crane) fleeing the pogroms of Russia along with his little girl, arrives to struggle for a new life as Father's boat sails. Tateh and other immigrants sing their hopes in "A Shetetl iz Amerike." His travails epitomize the plight of immigrants everywhere, but he is determined to survive and thrive in the swirling political cauldron of his new found land.

Act one holds promise that the old order will be shaken and that new ideas are ready to burst forth. Emma Goldman (Anne L. Nathan) agitates for fairness to workers; Booker T. Washington (Lawrence E Street) gently pushes for Negro Equality; Henry Ford's (Eric Jon Mahlum) assembly line promises an affordable car for all Americans no matter social class or race; Harry Houdini (Joe Ventricelli), a successful immigrant, entertains the masses with his illusions and J.P. Morgan promises that anyone can make it in this country. For the masses it is just that — promises and illusions.

When Coalhouse and Sarah sing "Wheels of a Dream" in one of the most moving and beautifully realized duets, their eyes are aglow, and they mean it. It is a powerful moment when Darnell Abraham and Zurin Villanueva's voices and presence make us almost believe that anything is possible.

The illusive quality of of America's promise of freedom soon brings everyone's dreams back to bitter reality where a black man is kept in "his place," innocents killed or preyed upon, workers demoralized and enslaved as the powers who rule reassert their control and authority. Darnell Abraham is especially powerful as Coalhouse watches his dreams literally die and his affable pride in his achievements are turned into a violent revenge. When he and the cast cry out for "Justice" we recognize the truth of his deep-seated rage.

Ragtime is a sweeping musical drama of life and transformation. Barrington Stage has created a tight, intimate production that tells a timeless dramatic tale which parallels many of today's headlines and reminds us of the possibility of redemption, change and love.

The cast of twenty two is uniformly talented and dynamic, the songs majestic and story telling irresistible. The script by Terrence McNally with music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens is almost twenty-years-old and perhaps now has even more to say about the Myth of America.

Editor's Note: To read Curtainup's review of the original Broadway production which includes a complete song list go here; also the 2009 revival that played both in DC and New York .

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Book by Terrence McNally; Lyrics by Lynn Ahens; Music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed by Joe Calarco
Choreography by Shea Sullivan
Musical direction by Darren R. Cohen
Orchestrations: William David Brohn
Cast: Darnell Abraham (Coalhouse Walker, Jr.) Allison Blackwell (Sarah's friend/Ensemble) Christin Byrdsong (Ensemble) J. Anthony Crane (Tateh) Frances Evans (Little girl) Matt Gibson (Willie Conklin/Ensemble) David Harris (Father) Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (Younger Brother ) Danielle Lee James (Ensemble) Allen Kendall (J.P. Morgan/Ensemble) John Little (Grandfather/Ensemble) Eric John Mahlum (Henry Ford/Ensemble) Anne L. Nathan (Emma Goldman) Alex Nicholson (Ensemble) Marie Putko (Katheen/Brigit/Ensemble) Leanne A. Smih (Evelyn Nesbit/Ensemble) Elizabeth Stanley (Mother) Lawrence E. Street (Booker T. Washington/Ensemble) Elliot Trainor Edgar) Joe Ventricelli (Houdini/Ensemble) Zurin Villanueva (Sarah) Spencer-Mathias Reed (CoalhouseWalker III)
Scene design: Brian Prather
Costume design: Sara Jane Tosetti
Lighting design: Chris Lee
Sound design: Ed Chapman
Hair and Wig Design: David Bova & J. Jared James
Stage Manager: Renee Lutz
Running Time: 2 hours, 50 minutes; 1 intermission
Barrington Stage Company Boyd-Quinson Main Stage, Union St., Pittsfield,, MA
From 6/21/17; opening 6/24/17; closing 7/25/17
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at June 24 performance

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