The opening number of Ragtime (now in a stunning revival at the Neil Simon Theater) is a paradigm for the power of musical theater at its best—with ranks of the three groups whose stories intersect: the white upper-middle-class of Westchester, the African-Americans of Harlem, and the waves of immigrants (most from eastern Europe, Italy, or Ireland) who will make their mark on the country in the early 20th century.
On three levels of a minimal set, they claim their territory, express their attitudes and set up the conflicts that mirror America’s great leap forward, using music and movement to create the essence of complex history—even more effective as metaphor. The scene revived memories of the best moment of Fiddler on the Roof (the brainchild of Jerome Robbins, the master of metaphor), when the Jews decide to flee their villages forever: As music plays, the ragged band steps into light, on to a large turntable that begins to revolve; then, one by one or in small family groups, leave it…flung off into the darkness of an uncertain future. But they will travel in hope to other countries and cultures, free of the rigid laws and pogroms that have made their lives beyond the Pale unbearable.
Ragtime succeeds because of its economy and innate strength. The score sounds fresh, and the new lean production (using pipes to construct a car, a piano, or having a wheeled stairway stand in for a movie set), carries all the potency of suggestion, in place of literal representation. It’s the perfect aesthetic for director Marcia Milgrom Dodge, who was chosen for this Broadway revival after thirty years in regional theater; she’s charged it with life from the opening number to the last note. Her large cast sizzles, especially Christiane Noll, Robert Petkoff, Quentin Earl Darrington, Stephanie Umoh, and the tiny Savannah Wise, as the ill-fated Evelyn Nesbit.
Some of the heat that Ragtime emits comes from its successful translation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel (with similar construction and, in 1975, a very innovative mixture of fact and fiction). What was innovative then, is immediately recognizable now, and no less a strong skeleton to flesh out with song and dialogue. Its mixture of fictional and real characters works brilliantly. And its emotional punch leaves you laughing and crying, often at the same time.
This is enhanced by its subtext– the time of its conception– (just after the Vietnam War had ended, the Civil Rights movement had set in motion many ideas we take for granted today, and we were beginning to move on from the assassinations that had rocked the country). Ragtime ends just before the beginning of World War One and its forever changes. But it is reminiscent of a time of hope before those changes and, for a few hours in the theater, reminds us of what was possible when the country had less than half its current population, people still actually talked to one another, rather than to electronic devices, and urban surroundings were on a human scale. (Italics mine.) Knowing, in 2009, that that hope has proven largely unfounded, makes it only more appealing.
Big Ideas, Small Cast
I know everyone’s been raving about this show (Mel Cooper reported on the Knee High Theater earlier in Cooper’s London), and I can only add the most important information: its current Brooklyn run at St. Anne’s Warehouse has been extended to January 17. This amazingly inventive take on an old film, given new (and absolutely unique) life by director/adapter Emma Rice, boasts a small cast (of nine) that just never quits. They play multiple roles and instruments, and surround you with love and surprises from the moment you enter the lobby; dressed as ushers in a suburban movie theater in the 1940s, they perform songs by Noel Coward, so you believe – really believe – before you even take your seat.
The production itself uses film, video, live action, lighting, props, and body language to create a heightened reality. You’ve seen the elements before. But it’s the totally unique ways in which the actors, music, lights, and movement fuse that keep it irresistible all the way through. The references to the movie are always there. And the bodies in constant (and often slapstick) motion create an alternative world that oddly enhances your connection to the characters. It’s darker than the movie, and full of emotion, rather than sentiment. It’s a lot to pull off, and Knee High does it with a combination of imaginative improvisation, split-second timing, and brilliant direction by Emma Rice. Look for more on Knee High this spring in these pages.
Big Ideas, Small Treasures
What’s the opposite of blockbuster? Some of New York’s recent openings. Think compact quarters, spacious ideas. For instance: The Metropolitan Museum is showing (until February) what it calls “A Recently Rediscovered Velázquez Painting”—Portrait of a Man—that has emerged from centuries of mis-cleaning, mis-repainting, just plain grime, and that old devil varnish to shine anew.
It’s displayed in a modest gallery, along with a few other Velázquez portraits. What’s really fascinating, though, is the museum’s account of the painting’s history and reclamation on view in labels, and via headphones and podcast as well. (www.metmuseum.org/podcast) Don’t miss this rare peek behind the curtlain. (Or the painting itself, which is luminous in its new incarnation!)
Lost and Found
Inside the elegant quarters of NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (15 East 84 Street), you can find two rooms filled with very small, very old objects, and a burning mystery: what happened to the early Europeans who made them between 5000-3500 BC?
In modern-day Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, these southeastern people left behind sophisticated pottery, figurines, and gold and copper objects; the remnants of their long-abandoned settlements in the Danube Valley are badly charred. Who set the fires? You can ponder the mystery while you ponder the objects, until April, and admission is free.
Small Plates, Big Prices
The Guggenheim Museum has had a culinary/design makeover of its restaurant, and will be serving food by Executive Chef Rodolfo Contreras, with an accent on fresh ingredients from local area farmers and markets, cunningly presented as jewels for the palate: Sea Urchin Sauce, slow-roasted suckling pig, Quince, Violet Mustard and Apple Bacon jus, to name a few.
An alumnus of Bouley International, Contreras will preside over a destination eatery with only 58 seats, a communal table, and a European-style bar with small plates. Open from 11:30am to 11:00pm, The Wright sends more than one message: you will be well-taken-care-of, well-fed, and well-watered in its cozy, minimalist precincts, surrounded by a site-specific sculpture (“The horizon produced by a factory once it had stopped producing views”). But you will be paying market prices, too.
The designer food, sampled at a packed opening, hit its mark, and the wine was at the level of the food. But, at the risk of seeming ungrateful, could the Guggenheim consider an alternative space for hungry travelers who need to fill up before navigating the ramp, who may not have resources essential to a place at The Wright’s table? It’s worth thinking about…..maybe a daily soup, sandwich, and salad stand in another location?
Big Ideas, Big Talent
Before you get caught up in the holidays, be sure to schedule a trip to MoMA sometime between January 7 – 13, to see Caroline Link’s new film, Sometime in Winter. If I had to name one woman director as the best working today, Link would get my vote. Her adaptation of Nowhere in Africa won a (well-deserved) 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and was preceded by a portfolio of top-of-the-line works (The Rest is Silence; Pünktchen und Anton), displaying the technical mastery and perfect pitch for human dilemmas that distinguish all her films. Don’t miss it, and consider asking MoMA for a retrospective. It’s high time!