Saturday, February 19
Before “all that jazz” there was “Ragtime,” Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ description of America in the early 1900s, as well as the title of their 1998 musical. The Tony Award-winning epic follows three families – one African American, one WASP, one Jewish – living in New York at the turn of the last century, and deals with the class and race issues of the time. It plays at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center through March 6.
8 p.m. (Thurs.-Sat.), 2 p.m. (Sat. and Sun.). No matinee Sat., Feb. 19. The Feb. 27, 7 p.m. performance will be interpreted for the hearing impaired. $20-$47. 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. (562) 856-1999, ext. 4.
Sunday, February 20
Israeli Greek singer Shlomi Saranga has recorded more than 20 albums, performs regularly in Greece and Israel and is now in the midst of his first U.S. tour. Catch his Southern California debut tonight.
8:30 p.m. $50-$75. The Canyon Club, 28912 Roadside Drive, Agoura Hills. (818) 879-5016.
Monday, February 21
Steven Jay Fogel came late to painting. The businessman and author only took it up at age 48, but his intensely personal works have been given a showcase at the USC Hillel Jewish Center Gallery. His exhibition, “Relationships: My Friends and Their Stories,” is influenced by World War II and the Holocaust, as well as personal tragedies and experiences. It is on view through March 10.
9 a.m.-5 p.m. (Mon.-Fri.). Free. 3300 S. Hoover St., Los Angeles. (213) 747-9135, ext. 14.
Tuesday, February 22
“Samson and Delilah” comes to Orange County Performing Arts Center for four nights only, beginning tonight. The biblical tale of a woman’s betrayal and her lover’s subsequent downfall may be dated, but the French opera’s music by Camille Saint-Saëns endures.
7:30 p.m. (Feb. 22, 24 and 26), 2 p.m. (Feb. 27). $35-$185. Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
Wednesday, February 23
No such thing as a free lunch? Perhaps. But today you can find free movies, thanks to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Academy Foundation and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. This evening they are screening “I Used to Be a Filmmaker,” and “Capturing the Friedmans.”
7:30 p.m. James Bridges Theater, UCLA, Westwood. (310) 206-3456.
Thursday, February 24
The world gets a little smaller today, as African musician Habib Koité performs with his band Bamada at the Skirball. Koité’s music has been described as Pan-Malian, a convergence of the varied indigenous musical styles of his country. “I’m curious about all the music in the world, but I make music from Mali,” he said. They play tonight only.
8 p.m. $15-$20. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (866) 468-3399.
Friday, February 25
Head back to UCLA tonight for more flicks. They’re not free this time. The Otto Preminger series begins with this evening’s double feature, which screens his first hit in Hollywood, “Laura,” followed by, “Fallen Angel.”
7:30 p.m. $5-$8. James Bridges Theater, UCLA, Westwood. (310) 206-3456.
Attack on Writers Verges on Ridiculous
‘I am Tateh’
After months of rehearsal as a poor immigrant struggling to protect his daughter, Rubinstein has forged a close bond with Danielle Weiner, the young actress who plays Little Girl
In “Ragtime,” the part of Tateh, a widowed, immigrant Jew who comes to New York with a young daughter in tow, is in many ways a role that is especially close to the heart of actor John Rubinstein.
“Twenty years ago, I wanted that part,” said Rubinstein, who was “thrilled” to be approached for the role in the new musical. “I am Tateh. Like him, I have artistic aspirations. I enjoy the art of acting, but, ultimately, I’m Daddy.” (He is the father of four children who range in age from infancy to adulthood.)
Both as a father and as a son, Rubinstein had plenty of material from which to build this character. His father, world-renowned pianist Arthur Rubinstein, was a Jewish immigrant from Poland who first visited the United States in 1906, the year that “Ragtime” begins.
“My parents were older, particularly my father, who was 61, when I was born,” he said. “They both had such vivid memories of that period. My mother remembers fleeing Lithuania after the Russians took over. She and her family moved to Warsaw, where her father — a conductor — founded the Warsaw Opera. She was Catholic, so for her, it was all about nationality, about Russia confiscating her family’s property…. Their estate was on a rather large piece of land. It was almost Chekhovian.
“For my father, being a Polish Jew was the flip side of that experience. It wasn’t about Polish nationalism in the least. They left in ’38 or ’39, before I was born — first to Paris and then to the U.S. When they fled Hitler, the Gestapo took over their Paris house and robbed it of everything, including a portrait of my father by Picasso.”
Years later, the Rubinsteins traveled back to Poland. It was then when the enormity of the Holocaust began to take shape in the young actor’s mind.
“We went back in 1958, when I was 12 years old,” he said. “A huge swarm of people came to meet us from my mother’s side. ‘I’m your granduncle,’ this one was saying. That one is your second cousin, and so on. Amid this mass of people, just one young man approached my father — a nephew of some sort who had survived. Just him. It was then that I really got it.”
Rubinstein said that while his father was never particularly religious, “he was a proud Jew and a staunch Zionist” who remained tremendously involved with Israel. “You know, after 1914, my father said he’d never play again in Germany, and he never did.”
After months of rehearsal as a poor immigrant struggling to protect his daughter, Rubinstein has forged a close bond with Danielle Weiner, the young actress who plays Little Girl, Tateh’s mostly silent daughter.
“I adore her,” he said. “After every show, I get down on my knees and thank her for her energy. She’s my partner. Eighty percent of my role, in a sense, is addressed to her. Her support and good acting make it work. And sometimes, she tells me to remember my props.” — Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor
Go to The Jewish Journal’s 7 DAYS IN THE ARTS
Going Her Way
America, Set to Music
Coalhouse Walker Jr.
(Brian Stokes Mitchell),
a ragtime pianist brimming
with confidence and plans
for the future
America, Set to Music
By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor
After the countless ads, fluff pieces and an advance press packet thick enough to choke a horse, the question hung in the celebrity-studded lobby of the Shubert Theatre last Sunday evening: Could “Ragtime” pull it off?
The answer is a resounding yes. Fans of “big” musicals who may have been unmoved by the direction the genre has taken in recent years will be heartened by “Ragtime,” a sweeping and ambitious $10 million production with a soul. Librettist Terrence McNally, director Frank Galati, musical composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens have created an epic musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel that places its stirring, human-scale narrative front and center.
The syncopated music made famous by Scott Joplin is the show’s central metaphor — marking the beginning of a new century humming with energy and the promise of big changes to come.
“Ragtime” begins in 1906, and the entire company is on stage for the stylish and rousing opening number that sets the scene: It was the music of something beginning/ an era exploding/ a century spinning in riches and rags/ and in rhythm and rhyme. The people called it Ragtime….”
It’s a smartly staged introduction to the three narrative strands that constitute the story. The gentry of New Rochelle, dressed in costume designer Santo Loquasto’s creamy Victorian whites and twirling lacy parasols, sings sweetly of their America, a smugly romantic place destined for a rude awakening. Their world was an affluent WASP idyll where, “there were no Negroes or immigrants….”
Suddenly, the African-American members of the cast twirl to the foreground, dancing with defiant joy to the syncopated new rhythms of rag, determined to bust loose into a new age. Both groups are then joined by a gaggle of immigrants. Jews in shtreimels and beards, babushkas and shawls, rush warily to center stage, only to huddle uncertainly in the middle. They glance back and forth between the black and white ensembles, which square off and face each other in a dance buzzing with tension and the threat of conflict. It’s a compressed, evocative tableau of American history, and one of many pleasurable moments in the play when Graciela Daniele’s inventive choreography adds dramatic punch to the proceedings.
Understandably, certain plot points from Doctorow’s sprawling, intricate novel have been cut. Even so, this “Ragtime” is a tapestry of interweaving stories that adheres more closely to the spirit and scope of the book than Milos Forman’s ponderous and lopsided film adaptation.
At the outset, “Mother,” “Father,” “Younger Brother” and “The Little Boy” live a charmed and bucolic life in New Rochelle. All of that is destined to change after Father (John Dossett), a pompous and hidebound traditionalist, leaves with Admiral Peary for a yearlong expedition to the North Pole. In his absence, the heatedly idealistic Younger Brother finds that his walloping juvenile crush on vaudeville sex symbol Evelyn Nesbit metamorphoses into a passion for radical justice, sparked by the fiery rhetoric of anarchist Emma Goldman one night in Union Square.
Meanwhile, Mother (Marcia Mitzman Gaven) has taken in a young and frightened black woman and her newborn son. It is Sarah (LaChanze), on the run from a failed romance with the handsome Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Brian Stokes Mitchell). Coalhouse, a ragtime pianist brimming with confidence and plans for the future, is unaware of the birth of his child and determined to find his lost love. After they reunite in all-white New Rochelle, Coalhouse takes to visiting Sarah at Mother’s house every Sunday, driving there in his beloved new Model-T Ford. The weekly specter of “the nigger” in his gleaming automobile, however, infuriates the men of the town’s largely Irish volunteer fire department. Seething with hatred, they destroy Coalhouse’s car, setting the story’s tragedy in motion.
Back in the city, the immigrant Tateh (John Rubinstein) and The Little Girl (Danielle Weiner) are trying to scrabble out an existence on the teeming Lower East Side. A struggling artist, Tateh cuts out silhouettes for a nickel apiece. But as he and his daughter sink deeper into poverty, his dream of life in the goldene medina rapidly darkens into a relentless nightmare. They flee New York, get caught up in a violent labor strike in a Massachusetts mill town, and finally find salvation through Tateh’s little handmade “movie books,” crude cutout images that seem to move as one flips the pages. After the books become a modest hit, Tateh invents a primitive film projector and scores success in the early movie business as director “Baron Ashkenazi.”
It’s a daunting mosaic of a plot, but McNally and company prove themselves up to the challenge. The real-life historical figures who peppered the original narrative — Goldman, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and escapologist Harry Houdini — are used artfully here, both as metaphors of an age and as bits of our collective past come to life. Only Evelyn Nesbit (Susan Wood), whose celebrity as “the girl on the swing” was sealed after her millionaire husband murdered her lover, architect Stanford White, fails to become a meaningful thread in this tapestry. Instead, she remains a free-floating bit of camp history, never resonating on a deeper level.
“Ragtime” producer Garth Drabinsky held exhaustive Los Angeles auditions for the cast, and, by and large, it’s a solid and able company.
The elegant Mitchell, a charismatic baritone who soars in his role as Coalhouse, is the sole holdover from the Toronto production. He infuses the doomed hero with feline grace and stiff-necked nobility. Coalhouse was always a compelling character, even if his early optimism about America is a bit of a puzzle. In lesser hands, Coalhouse could easily ring false, a maddeningly naïve riff on the Brother from Another Planet. But Mitchell’s expressive portrayal is, at once, specific and larger than life — a metaphor for how our best hopes of America persist in spite of everything. It makes his descent into rage and despair a fall that has consequences for all of us.
Some other performances stand out. The patrician-looking Gaven is luminescent as Mother. LaChanze, in the smaller role of Sarah, is able to stir the back row of the theater with her piercing “Your Daddy’s Son” and “The Wheels of a Dream.” As Tateh, Rubinstein is fine in “Gliding,” a bittersweet lullaby to his daughter flavored with Jewish melody. But he is most winning here as an actor. Despite his role as the archetypal immigrant, he studiously avoids any whiff of schmaltz, and is especially good in a boardwalk scene with Mother.
Flaherty’s musical score is blessedly free of the forgettable segue numbers that dilute much of musical theater. Ahrens’ lyrics neatly enrich the characterizations and propel the story forward with depth and style. They are moving but not manipulative — even in numbers where the temptation to woo us with false sentimentality may have been great. “He Wanted to Say,” “Back to Before” and “Till We Reach That Day,” an aching anthemlike ballad against racism, are vivid cases in point.
Eugene Lee’s fun and evocative set is money well spent. During the number “Success,” J.P. Morgan strides self-importantly along a catwalk that slowly descends to crush the hopeful plebes below. In a memorable Ellis Island scene that looks like a sepia photo come to
life, bedraggled immigrants rush forward with their documents at the ready, their hope impervious to the succession of barred gates that slam shut in front of them with each advancing step. They, like Coalhouse, Sarah and the rest, are looking for the country of their dreams. Instead, what they get in “Ragtime” is America — “a strange new music,” as powerful and dissonant today as it was a century ago.
“Ragtime” plays at the Shubert Theatre, 2020 Avenue of the Stars, Century City. It closes on Sept. 7. Tickets are available at the theater box office or by calling (800) 447-7400.
Go to The Jewish Journal’s 7 DAYS IN THE ARTS
Going Her Way