Ragtime is the ultimate musical for our time, and if you’re anywhere in or near the Berkshires, find your way to Barrington Stage Company’s outstanding production, which runs in Pittsfield through July 15th.
Back in the 1970’s, when E.L. Doctorow wrote Ragtime, one of the most successful novels of its era, the author could not have predicted how timely the story would be 40 years later.
Ragtime tells the story—to be more specific, it tells multiple stories—of an America in great flux socially, racially, and economically.
Not unlike today.
The arc of Doctorow’s history of the early 20th century bends toward acceptance and understanding, but that arc is hardly a smooth path.
Ragtime follows the journeys of a Protestant family whose top of the world mentality is shaken, first by the idea of a woman working, and second, by the sudden arrival of a seemingly unwanted African American baby and her mother, who come to live with the family.
Intertwined with those stories is the story of the father of that child, a ragtime pianist who is inspired by the optimism and idealism of Booker T. Washington and then radicalized by the terrible racism he encounters.
And then you have a Jewish immigrant and his daughter, symbolizing the teeming masses welcomed, at least in theory, in Emma Lazarus’ poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
These three groupings, assisted by and intertwined with celebrities of the era—Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Eveline Nesbit, and the aforementioned Booker T. Washington—grope toward the light and eventually come to new understandings about how American society will work.
The show won Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Musical Score, and the music is practically nonstop, more in the spirit of Porgy and Bess than a traditional Broadway show.
The timeliness of the story in today’s world is obvious as our society copes, yet again, with the convulsions along racial, ethic, social, and economic lines.
It’s easy to see why, based on the outstanding material to work with and the timeliness of the story, Barrington Stage Company chose to produce the piece.
Zurin Villanueva and Darnell Abraham steal the show as the unmarried African American couple struggling to raise their child under extremely difficult circumstances.
Anne L. Nathan deserves special credit for her star turn as Emma Goldman. In fact, the entire cast, most of whom have Broadway credits, is outstanding and joyous as they sing and interact.
The show is not for the faint of heart—there’s not exactly the kind of happily ever after that you hope for from a Broadway musical, but that’s exactly the point.
It isn’t easy to achieve the kind of social perfection, if you will, that Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, and the fictional members of the story seek, but the journey toward decency and salvation is one worth watching.
Hats off to Barrington Stage for taking an extremely difficult musical to perform and making it great.
Ragtime at Barrington Stage Company runs until July 15th. Find out more here.