Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 29, 2017


Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through July 15, 2017
by Shera Cohen

Photo: Daniel Rader
Times have changed. Audiences, particularly summer audiences, liked and expected their musicals to be lite and frothy, with relatively unimportant plots. “Ragtime,” whose story is essentially about Change (yes, with a capital “c”), proves to be the exact opposite in tenor and substance, not to mention so apropos to 21st Century America that it is often uncomfortable. At the same time, “Ragtime” is more than a “must-see” – it is truly a “must-experience.”

The focus is on three ethnic groups at the turn of the last century in New York City: wealthy class whites, unprivileged blacks, and destitute newly-emigrated Jews. This trio of such diverse families and extended-families intertwine in what could easily have been a history lesson with generic people. Terrance McNally’s book immediately turns stereotypes into breathing human beings, who like it or not, live as neighbors.

The ever-present Ragtime music links the environs with various degrees of ethnicities; i.e. on one occasion, jazz with a clever Klezmer underscore. Composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, who have each won numerous Tony Awards for this musical, create the early 1900’s changing sounds with McNally’s text about changing American values and kinship.

The cast of actors, singers, and dancers has been chosen with excellence as single individuals and in relationships to each other. Darnell Abraham, the proud yet flawed erstwhile leader of the African-American family, gives a tender performance in his hulk of a chiseled body. Whether speaking, singing, or just standing and watching, Abraham molds his Coalhouse Walker, Jr. character into a man to be admired. The other lead is Elizabeth Stanley, familiar to Berkshire theatregoers. Stanley’s voice is exquisite, her stance and nuances (an ever so slight tilt of her head, a small hand gesture) say far more than dialogue that her Mother role could.

There are so many actors to praise: David Harris as the stalwart Father, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka as the naïve Uncle, J. Anthony Crane as desperate Tateh, and Zurin Vilanueva as heart-driven Sarah. Their common denominator? Superb voices.

My guesses why “Ragtime” is not often produced are two: a very large cast, and sets that could easily challenge the best of scenic designers. Director Joe Cararco and scenic designer Brian Prather have demonstrated that what might seem difficult, is an enormous success in their hands. Except for the lead roles, triple and quadruple casting works perfectly, without any confusion for the audience. Less is more as the staging converts an old attic into numerous sites simply by movement of a chair.

Again – a must experience.