RAGTIME THEN, RAGTIME NOW The beloved, Tony Award-winning RAGTIME, with a book by Terrence McNally adapted from E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 sprawling historical fiction set in turn-of the-19thC New York, gets a spirited, if not wholly satisfying, presentation at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield. RAGTIME ambitiously runs three major plot lines - about a prosperous WASP family, an impoverished Jewish immigrant and daughter, and an unwed Black couple with infant child – linked with real characters like industrialist Henry Ford, financier J. P. Morgan, socialite Evelyn Nesbitt, anarchist Emma Goldman, and illusionist Harry Houdini. Through this kaleidoscope, McNally’s top-heavy book visits critical issues in American history - the empowerment of women, worker’s rights, urban poverty - but his lens focuses mostly on racial justice.
It's fitting then that the powerhouses of BSC’s RAGTIME - among a uniformly, vocally exceptional, large cast (20 adults) - are African-American. A youthful Darnell Abraham, of stunning, clear, handsome baritone voice, is outstanding as Coalhouse Walker Jr., the Black piano man who plays ragtime (think Scott Joplin). He’s matched with a superb Zorn Villanueva, seen in SHUFFLE ALONG on Broadway last season, as Coalhouse’s lover, Sarah. But it’s Allison Blackwell, as Sarah’s friend, who defines the show’s highpoint with her powerful lead vocal in the spiritual, “Til We Reach That Day” that closes Act 1.
Choreography is limited in this RAGTIME and pretty much the domain of the African American cast. Choreographer Shea Sullivan creates some lovely stylized movement for the whole ensemble in the opening number and a rousing “Getting’ Ready Rag” with innovative dance vocabulary for the Black ensemble in Act 1 but there’s not enough of it. Brian Panther’s fixed set, envisioned as an attic, is shaped by three large suspended arched windows (more architecturally suggestive of church, bank or courthouse) with Victorian-period furniture and decorative objects scattered about (lots of lamps). Chris Lee's lighting flatters this scenic design. Costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti have interesting textural appeal, besides being thoroughly character appropriate.
RAGTIME’s score by Stephen Flaherty (teamed with lyricist Lynn Ahrens now on Broadway’ with ANASTASIA), a mix of ragtime, gospel, and marches (yes, some John Phillip Souza), relentlessly propels McNally’s book with 32 musical numbers. Ahern's lyrics, always reliably keen and incisive, are especially clever in the satirical “What a Game” an ostensibly cheery but rather dark take on the all-American sport of baseball.
Musical director Darren N. Cohen masters Flaherty’s score as energetically he did Sullivan’s THE PIRATES OF PENCANZE last year at BSC, but amidst McNally’s very busy book and the non-stop parade of vocal numbers, the direction of Joe Calarco seems light on dramatic ballast. Still, RAGTIME, remains a clarion call for the American experiment in democracy. In its inspirational finale, the white characters move on to a better life, but the Blacks don’t “reach that day” - they’re still holding the short end of the American Dream. As the French say, “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"