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Visionary View of "Ragtime" America

Book by Terrence McNally
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge

Starring Quentin Earl Darrington, Jonathan Hammond, Donna Migliaccio, Michael X. Martin, Aaron Galligan-Stierle, Robert Petkoff, Savannah Wise, Mike McGowan, Eric Jordan Young

The power and sweep of Ragtime take your breath away. The mix of true history and invention yields a bittersweet story anchored in the panorama of American history.

It is the early 1900s in New Rochelle. The upper-class white family and their friends — dressed in white — cakewalk and sing of their bucolic lives in the Westchester suburbs. We learn, through Lynn Ahrens’s lyrics, that there were ladies with parasols, fellows with tennis balls, but, “There were no Negroes.” Not in New Rochelle.

Shift to Harlem, where Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Darrington) is playing ragtime for pulsating black dancers.

“And there were no immigrants.” The set by Derek McLane is a multilevel iron structure that invokes Pennsylvania Station which was completed in 1910 and was called a “civic masterpiece.”

Above, on a high walkway, a stream of new arrivals swathed in dark clothes (costumes by Santo Loquasto) and clutching bundles moves wondrously into a new world. Harry Houdini (Hammond), born the Jew Eric Weiss in Austria, drops in from the sky, upside down.

And the militant Emma Goldman (Migliaccio) denounces the capitalist exploiters, J.P. Morgan (Martin) and Henry Ford (Galligan-Stierle).

That’s just the opening of this inspiring revival of the musical by Terrence McNally, based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel.
Marcia Milgrom Dodge has directed and choreographed it with poetry, style and elegance, pulling together the strands of Doctorow’s interwoven narratives so that the pastiche makes a rich fabric of early 20th-century America.

The characters are meant as symbols, as the play mixes real people with invented ones, true events with imaginary ones. The fictional people come from three families—upper-middle class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, immigrant socialist Jews from Latvia, and Harlem blacks.  They represent American dreams: the woman who feels hemmed in by her status as a wife, an immigrant hoping for a better life, a black man seeking equality.

The sound and beat that backdrops the story is ragtime, a new music that represented new attitudes. It was a metaphor for Doctorow, who said that taking the imagery of a rag bin of threads and tatters of images and ideas, he wanted to look at the disparate, conflicting and intersecting strands of humanity that made up America at the turn of the century. It was a time when European immigration peaked, as in 1907, 1.2 million immigrants arrived at Ellis Island. Labor struggles were endemic. Racism was virulent.

The dramatic vignettes are interspersed seamlessly as the story builds to interconnect the lives of the rich whites, the blacks, the immigrants to create one fabric. The story is gripping.

The interweaving of the true and invented give the play both a personal emotion and verisimilitude, each strand strengthening the other. McNally is faithful to the story and to what Doctorow wanted to say. It is a masterful combination.

Real figures include Emma Goldman, powerfully drawn by Donna Migliaccio, as the radical union organizer speaking for the rights of workers, including the immigrants who traded bad times in Europe for misery on the Lower East Side. Her Union Square rally is broken up by violent police.

She had her work cut out for her in this time of industrialization and the assembly line. J.P. Morgan wears a top hat and fur lapel, while workers struggle to get their fair share. Doctorow’s hero Tateh (Petkoff) arrives from Latvia, but leaves the jobless Lower East Side for a mill in Lawrence, Mass. Striking workers there are attacked by thugs and cops.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, frivolity reigns. Evelyn Nesbit (played with sharp humor by Wise), the chorus-girl wife of millionaire Harry Thaw (Josh Walden), who inherited a coke and railroad fortune, finds fame in a sex scandal. Thaw kills architect Stanford White (McGowan), who had once been Nesbit’s lover.

The trial filled the tabloids, and Evelyn milks it in a vaudeville act. Mother’s Younger Brother (Bobby Steggert) falls in love with Nesbit, but then goes to the Goldman rally. Steggert is appealing as the young fellow who has compassion for the suffering workers and swaps frivolous infatuation for radical politics.

In the race strand, Doctorow’s ragtime pianist Coalhouse has fallen in love with Sarah (Stephanie Umoh),given shelter by Mother (Christiane Noll) while Father (Ron Bohmer) is away with Admiral Peary on an expedition to the North Pole. Returning from New Rochelle in his Model-T, Coalhouse is stopped by racists of the Emerald Isle fire house, who set in motion heartbreaking events that destroy his dreams. He vows revenge.

We hear the Negro leader Booker T. Washington (Young) preach non-violent forbearance and see the dénouement occurs symbolically at J.P. Morgan’s Library on Madison Avenue and 35th Street.

The story shows the tragedies that ensued during the struggle for justice. But it also points to the transformative power of the new world. Mother challenges patriarchy.

She sings, "I was content, a princess asleep and enchanted. If I had dreams, then I let you dream them for me.” Those were “the days when I let you make all my choices.” She recalls, “I was your wife. It never occurred to want more.” But, “We can never go back to before.” Now, everything is possible.

The singing is first rate, including Mother/Noll’s bell soprano, Father/Bohmer’s tenor and Booker T. Washington/Young’s excellent baritone. Migliaccio is especially strong as Emma Goldman, Darrington, rent by fury, and Umoh, driven by desperation, are a moving couple as Coalhouse and Sarah.

Stephen Flaherty’s music expertly describes the characters and the mood. There is a charming jazzy idiom of ragtime and gospel. They are interspersed with anthems, operetta-style waltzes and genteel parlor songs. The choreography is bright and memorable, mixing the styles of the different social groups till they are woven into a new 20th century fashion. This is one of the important plays of American musical theater.

Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
New York City
Opened November 15, 2009

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Kevin’s Digital Week #6

Blu-ray of the Week
The Mel Brooks Collection
Although his comedies grew increasingly spotty in their laughs over the years, at his best in the mid to late ‘70s, Mel Brooks made audience-pleasing farces combining crude belly laughs with sophisticated movie-buff humor. This deluxe boxed set houses eight Brooks-directed films and a mediocre remake of To Be or Not to Be (1983) starring Brooks and wife Anne Bancroft that was directed by Alan Johnson.

The Twelve Chairs
(1970), History of the World—Part I (1981), Spaceballs (1987) and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) alternate gutbusters with desperately unfunny segments, while the big four—Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (both 1974), Silent Movie (1976) and High Anxiety (1977)—can be watched again and again without sacrificing hilarity. Brooks was never a primarily visual director, so aside from sharper clarity, the Blu-ray transfers aren’t that much better than the original DVDs: with the stunning exception of Young Frankenstein, whose lustrous B&W photography looks so beautiful that you might find yourself admiring it at the expense of the comedy.

No matter: just watch it again. The discs are housed in an impressive coffee-table box which includes a full-color 120-page book about Brooks’ career. Extras include commentaries, interviews and deleted scenes, including six new making-of featurettes.

DVD of the Week
The Golden Age of Television
Even for a company like the Criterion Collection, which releases classic films every month, The Golden Age of Television is a big deal. This three-disc set collects eight full-length plays originally shown live on television in the ‘50s, then shown on PBS in the ‘80s with introductions and recollections from various principals.

The plays include Rod Serling’s biting drama Patterns, Paddy Chayefsky’s groundbreaking Marty, and three other hard-hitting works, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Days of Wine and Roses and Bang the Drum Slowly, the last of which stars a dynamic young actor named Paul Newman.

Watching these old kinescopes (the audio and visual quality is substandard, but since that’s all that survives of these live performances, we should be grateful for what we have) is an evocative experience, especially when watching such splendid performers as Rod Steiger, Richard Kiley, Ed Begley, Jack Palance, Kim Hunter, Piper Laurie and Cliff Robertson play meaty roles in dramatic plays that would never be shown on TV today. Extras include commentaries by directors John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann, Ralph Nelson and Daniel Petrie, and cast and crew interviews.

"Up in the Air" Soars

Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn
Starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, J.K. Simmons, Sam Elliott, Danny McBride, Zach Galifianakis

Jason Reitman's bitterly funny Up in the Air, adapted from the novel by Walter Kirn, rests on the shoulders of George Clooney, who lends his considerable charisma to the charming but loathsome "termination facilitator" Ryan Bingham, who shatters lives with an air of practiced camaraderie then hops the next plane out of town.

Bingham is the organization man par excellence, a sleek, rootless corporate fast-gun whose life is built on freedom from excess baggage. Bingham loves the anonymity of airport hotels and the promise of gates and jetways, the restless movement and the comfort of crowds. All the material things he needs fit into one rolling suitcase; his emotional ties...  well, he's pared them all away: His parents are dead, he's never been married or had children, politely ignores his sisters and their families and keeps his love life strictly utilitarian. His ideal woman is fellow traveler Alex "Think of Me as You with a Vagina" Goran (Farmiga), whose idea of commitment is scheduling the next smoking-hot rendezvous in an anonymous airport hotel. Bingham's holy grail is the 10 million frequent-flyer miles that will elevate him to super-deluxe, elite passenger status.

When Bingham isn't firing shell-shocked workers with polished platitudes — "Everyone who's ever changed the world or founded an empire has sat where you're sitting," he purrs, deflecting fears of penury and humiliation with the assurance that the one-size-fits-all severance packet contains all the information the newly unemployed need to make lemonade from lemons — he?s polishing the motivational shtick he hopes will make him rich and famous. "How much does your life weigh," his rap begins, as he hefts a metaphorically freighted backpack. Friends, family, homes and keepsakes, Bingham says, are the deadwood that keep us from achieving our full potential. Empty the backpack of your life and the possibilities are endless.

Bingham's rude awakening comes in the form of fresh-faced go-getter Natalie Keener (Kendrick), who's convinced his boss (Bateman) that the future of firing is teleconferencing. Goodbye travel expenses, per diems and hotel bills; Bingham and his fellow high-flying hatchet men can park their suitcases and work out of the home office in Denver. Of course, for all her pluck and book smarts, Keener lacks field experience — she's never sat across a table from someone whose years of acquired experience, loyalty and hard work have just evaporated in te face of restructuring, right-sizing or outsourcing. Which is why Bingham is assigned to spend his last footloose and fancy-free days teaching her the ropes.

Reitman's gift is that he can turn bitter, unpalatable material into mainstream movies fodder without stripping away the bite; Thank You For Smoking (2005) and Juno (2007) could be tougher, but they could also be feel-good Hollywood pablum or indie darlings that play a handful of markets and vanish into the home-entertainment morass. Up in the Air is hugely entertaining: Clooney, Farmiga and Kendrick, a relative newcomer whose precocious resume includes a Tony Award nomination at age 12, have the kind of sparkling chemistry that makes narrative twists go down like caviar chased with perfectly dry champagne.

But there's an underlying weight, and it's more than fortuitous timing — if you can use the word "fortuitous" in connection with Up in the Air's opening in the middle of a major economic meltdown that's left almost 25,000,000 Americans un- or under-employed. Reitman's decision to cast real, recently unemployed people as a Greek chorus gives the film a poignant weight. Their improvised scenes seethe with emotionally stunning shock, fear, despair and anger that cuts through reality-TV induced cynicism and cuts right to the bone.

For more by Maitland McDonagh:

Living With "The Lovely Bones"

Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, based on the novel by Alice Sebold
With: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, Michael Imperioli, Rose McIver and Christian Thomas Ashdale

New Zealander Jackson seemed the perfect director to adapt Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, a story of murder and what comes after that’s narrated by a dead girl trapped in the pretty prison of an afterworld that lies somewhere between where she was and where she’s going.

Think back past the epic Lord of the Rings films to Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, a richly imagined story of two adolescent girls caught in a poisonous plasticine fantasy world conjured from their half-formed fantasies. Perfect!

And yet The Lovely Bones is sadly inert. The story shuttles back and forth between a placid 197
0s suburbia and an afterlife that looks disconcerting like the cover of a Yes album; both are bloodless, all look and no vitality.

14-year-old Susie “like the fish” Salmon (Ronan) dies on December 6, 1973, raped, murdered and dismembered by George Harvey (Tucci), the creepy neighbor every picture-perfect small town and suburb seems to have. It takes her a while to realize what’s happened; briefly baffled, she flees the cornfield where she died and can’t fathom why no one can see or hear her. But once Susie understands and accepts her state — she’s disembodied but stranded somewhere between life and afterlife — she takes a keen interest in the ongoing travails of her family and friends.

Despite the best efforts of local cop Len Fenerman (Imperioli), Susie’s body is never found, though her bedraggled cap — a godforsaken thing knitted by her mother, Abigail (Weisz) — turns up in a nearby field. It becomes gradually, painfully clear that body or no body, Susie is almost certainly dead, though it’s the almost that torments everyone who knew her. Susie’s father, Jack (Wahlberg), is obsessed with finding his little girl’s killer even as he tries to cling to the hope that she’s alive; his fixation eventually drives Abigail to abandon her family and retreat into a soul-searching sojourn on a hippie-dippy commune.

Abigail’s hard-drinking, open-minded mother (Sarandon) tries to step in, but nurturing was clearly never her bag. Susie fades to near abstraction for baby brother Buckley (Ashdale), but Lindsey (McIver), who grew up in Susie’s shadow, is determined to find her sister’s killer… and she has a hunch about Harvey. Susie’s friend Clarissa (Michalka), who sometimes vaguely feels her presence, begins dating Jake (Nelson), the dishy Brit on whom Susie had her first and only crush.

First and foremost, The Lovely Bones rests on Ronan’s shoulders, and she’s more than up to the challenge: Her performance is the single best thing about the film. Ronan overlays the awkwardness of a sheltered teenager with the devastating weariness of someone who knows that all possibility is behind her. Dead Susie is all she’ll ever be, and the only way she can remain connected to her cruelly truncated life is by watching other lives go on.

Unfortunately, Ronan is hemmed in at every turn by the kitschy afterlife in which she’s trapped. It’s perfectly reasonable that Susie’s imagination, which shapes her limbo, would be shaped by kitschy ‘70s design. But the specificity of the movie’s set design drags Sebold’s ethereal in-between world down to earth with a crashing thud; Ronan’s pitch-perfect voice-over narration is regularly undermined by the goofy landscape she inhabits, even if it is populated by other girls murdered by sex fiends, some even younger that Susie. The whole thing recalls the tacky afterlives of 1998’s What Dreams May Come, a simplistic and painfully unconvincing fable about love’s power to overcome all.

Jackson and screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh — Walsh is Jackson’s wife and both women are his longtime collaborators — are nothing if not decorous; there’s no salaciousness in Susie’s death and no morbid fascination with the minutia of Harvey’s psychosis. All of which is entirely reasonable: The Lovely Bones isn’t voyeuristic serial-killer porn. But the film’s relentless good taste renders it dull and hollow; Susie might as well be away at summer camp, and that absence of tragic resonance robs the story of its thorny, haunting heart. To hear the voice of a dead teenager, a girl whose life was brutally ended before it had a chance to start, blithely nattering about the day-to-day affairs of the living should fray your last nerve. But even Ronan’s considerable skills can’t trump CGI’s power to render everything false and inconsequential, and more’s the pity.

For more by Maitland McDonagh:

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