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Immigration, Black Lives Matter — 'Ragtime' Rages On At Barrington Stage. ('The Birds' Are Back, Too.)

J. Anthony Crane (center) as Tateh and the cast of "Ragtime." (Courtesy of Daniel Rader/Barrington Stage)
J. Anthony Crane (center) as Tateh and the cast of "Ragtime." (Courtesy of Daniel Rader/Barrington Stage)
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The Barrington Stage Company has come a long way since Julianne Boyd founded the company in 1994, when its mainstage was a high school auditorium in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Now they’re the toast of Pittsfield, helping to lead the artistic revitalization of this less tony neighbor of Lenox, Stockbridge and Williamstown.

Wherever they've performed, though, the quality was Grade A from the start. Two of their early productions, “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Cabaret,” transferred to Eastern Mass. and won Elliot Norton awards. Both were better than Broadway revivals that followed a couple of years later. By the turn of the millennium, musicals that began life at Barrington were transferring to Broadway — “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “On the Town.” In 2005 the company restored an old vaudeville theater in Pittsfield and then added two smaller spaces down the street.

“Spelling Bee” co-creator William Finn (“Falsettos”) liked Boyd and the Berkshires so much that he joined up with BSC and now holds court at Mr. Finn’s Cabaret in one of those spaces. Acclaimed playwright Mark St. Germain has had a number of his plays produced here and they named the second stage after him. (McPherson's adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's "The Birds" is playing there now. Review below.)

So it’s no surprise that its new production of “Ragtime” (through July 15) is a stunner. Well, actually, it is a bit of surprise since “Ragtime” did not seem to be in need of the rethinking that BSC had given “Cabaret” and “On the Town.”

What do you do with a Broadway show of more recent vintage like “Ragtime,” which debuted in 1996 with the perfect cast of Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie? There has already been a Broadway revival and it’s been a staple of several regional productions, including those at the New Repertory Theatre and North Shore Music Theatre. (The New Rep trio of “Ragtime” women — Leigh Barrett, Stephanie Umoh and Aimee Doherty — lives on in the memory’s pantheon.)

If the new Barrington Stage version doesn’t improve on perfection it comes close enough for any lover of musical theater. That “Ragtime” seems more relevant today than ever has something to do with the original, talented creative team — Terrence McNally (book), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (lyrics) — all working at the top of their estimable games. And it has much to do with how the musical so neatly, if grotesquely, intersects with issues of immigration and Black Lives Matter. 

In this production, however, it’s director Joe Calarco, who goes beyond the predictable touchstones of ethnicity in the play to something more profound. It seems as timely as last year’s production that also touched on Black Lives Matter issues, “American Son.”

Zurin Villanueva as Sarah and Darnell Abraham as Coalhouse Walker in "Ragtime." (Courtesy of Daniel Rader/Barrington Stage)
Zurin Villanueva as Sarah and Darnell Abraham as Coalhouse Walker in "Ragtime." (Courtesy of Daniel Rader/Barrington Stage)

Barrington's “Ragtime” begins with a group of contemporary characters climbing into an attic, where they find memorabilia from their ancestors’ lives. They then start donning the costumes they find there and morph into the musicals’ characters. The blonde woman in jeans gets into the corseted confinement of the open-minded if confused blue-blood, Mother. The light-hearted bearded guy becomes the woebegone Jewish immigrant, Tateh. The handsome African-American sits down at the piano and starts playing the opening chords of “Ragtime,” a la his soon-to-be persona, Coalhouse Walker.

You can guess what happens next. The other actors congregate onstage and before you can say Harry Houdini, a musical breaks out.

And what a musical. The stage version of E.L. Doctorow’s masterful traversal of the early part of the 20th century came at the end of the millennium and was a melodic shot in the arm to a genre that had fallen into post-Sondheim musical doodling. (Hi there, Adam Guettel.) The idea of centering the musical on a WASP, a Jew and black man from the book enabled Flaherty, Ahrens and McNally to focus on these three groups as emblematic of America’s changing ethnicity, and changing rhythms.

Flaherty’s melodies soared like none since the golden age of musicals, leading some to mistakenly cavil that these were empty anthems. How wrong they were — and the Barrington staging sets the record straight. Ahrens' lyrics sound sharper than ever.

The 10-piece orchestra led by Darren R. Cohen fills the 520-seat theater like one twice its size, but director Calarco’s great accomplishment is to push the characters’ stories to the front. I had fears that staging “Ragtime” in an attic would lessen its scope, but while some of the scenes lose weight — the racist destruction of Coalhouse’s car — the net effect of Brian Prather’s scenic design, is to sharpen the focus.

Elizabeth Stanley as Mother in "Ragtime" at Barrington Stage Company. (Courtesy of Daniel Rader/Barrington Stage)
Elizabeth Stanley as Mother in "Ragtime" at Barrington Stage Company. (Courtesy of Daniel Rader/Barrington Stage)

Again, any production of “Ragtime” would have intonations of what’s happening with immigration and police issues aligned with the killing of unarmed black men, but Calarco cuts to the quick here. The casket coming down the aisle of the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, containing the body of one of the murdered African-Americans in the musical, makes you feel the anger and sorrow, not just understand it intellectually.

Calarco, who directed a dazzling “Breaking the Code” about Alan Turing three years ago, has assembled a fine ensemble led by Elizabeth Stanley, who starred with the company in “On the Town” and “Kiss Me Kate.” Like Finn and St. Germain, Calarco and Stanley have also become great additions to the Barrington brood of regulars.

That Darnell Abraham as Coalhouse is a better singer than actor and J. Anthony Crane as Tateh is a better actor than singer don't detract from the strong presence they, and everyone else, make. There is an empathetic electricity running through the whole cast and crew, none more so than when Stanley belts out “[We Can Never Go] Back to Before.” I had never thought of it as one of the musical’s major numbers, but here it becomes a symbol of rage against the sexism and racism of the age, as well as an anthem of liberation movements to come.

Have things changed that much? The script's optimism of assimilation at the end is forced, to say the least, but it doesn’t affect the feeling that this is a production that ranks with the best of Barrington Stage.

"The Birds"

Kathleen McNenny, Stevie Ray Dallimore and Sasha Diamond in "The Birds" at Barrington Stage Company. (Courtesy of Scott Barrow/Barrington Stage)
Kathleen McNenny, Stevie Ray Dallimore and Sasha Diamond in "The Birds" at Barrington Stage Company. (Courtesy of Scott Barrow/Barrington Stage)

Boyd has made a point about using the smaller St. Germain stage down the road on Linden Street to stage plays touching on social issues. In fact, “Kuntsler,” about the late radical lawyer, began the season.” What does a play drawn from “The Birds,” the same Daphne du Maurier source material as the Hitchcock film, have to do with contemporary politics?

Well, it seems the moon’s alignment with the Earth is out of whack, forcing the birds to go bonkers and attack human beings. Climate change and the human species' indifference to nature are to blame.

That’s all to the good, or the bad, in the eerie Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s adaptation. McPherson is a playwright that Boston theaters used to stand in line to stage. “The Weir,” “St. Nicholas,” “The Seafarer” and “Shining City” are only some of the plays that have had memorable Boston productions.

Are his later plays, like “The Night Alive” and “The Birds,” not in the same league or have Boston theaters lost the appetite for his tough, more abstract aesthetic? Whichever, it’s good to see Boyd, who directed “The Birds,” pick up the mantle with a smart production that keeps all of McPherson’s philosophical themes in balance.

Not that the production (through July 8) is fully successful. McPherson conjoins the natural and supernatural worlds like no other playwright. “St. Nicholas” even had a theater critic fall in with a group of vampires. This production, though, feels a little too naturalistic despite the otherworldly elements in the script, a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere and the spooky video design of birds massing from Alex Basco Koch. (Full disclosure, a friend.) A middle-aged couple, Diane and Nat, find themselves barricaded up in a New England farmhouse, wondering how much longer they can hold out. She’s a bitter writer, he has psychological issues. What could possibly go wrong.

When they’re joined by a younger woman, Julia, with a seemingly spiritual bent, you can only wonder when they’ll realize that three’s a crowd, particularly when biblical themes get mixed up with Darwinian survivalism. In McPherson's world, it's not really the Bible vs. Darwin; the two seem joined at the hip.

Stevie Ray Dallimore in "The Birds" at Barrington Stage Company. (Courtesy of Scott Barrow/Barrington Stage)
Stevie Ray Dallimore in "The Birds" at Barrington Stage Company. (Courtesy of Scott Barrow/Barrington Stage)

The situation has similarities with McPherson’s “The Night Alive” from 2013 that also featured three people eking out an existence, that one in a shabby Dublin apartment. The Donmar Warehouse production that came to New York bristled with a sense of metaphysical as well as physical danger. The same actor, Ciarán Hinds, starred in “The Birds” when it premiered in Dublin and I spent much of the play wishing he were in Pittsfield.

Stevie Ray Dallimore is a bit too bug-eyed, suggesting that maybe he’s a bigger danger to Diane than the birds — not that Diane is the most sympathetic potential victim in the history of the world. McPherson isn’t after sympathy, though. In his introduction to the volume that hosts “The Night Alive” and “The Birds,” he talks about exploring the female psyche.

He does it pretty well here though I’m not sure there’s a lesson beyond the fact that women can play Pinteresque power games as well as men — combining obtuseness and ruthlessness. This visit to McPherson’s world is more cerebral than the emotional, visceral visit I’ve grown accustomed to. But even if this doesn't get under my skin as much as other productions of the playwright, I’m happy spending any time in the mistiness of McPherson’s company and grateful that Barrington Stage brought it to the Berkshires.

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Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Now retired and contributing as a critic-at-large, Ed Siegel was the editor of The ARTery.

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