The first time I saw the musical Ragtime, I thought it was just OK. The year was 1998 and the venue was the newly-restored Oriental Theatre on Randolph (current home of the smash hit Wicked). It was a massive production on a huge stage, and since I’d already read E. L. Doctorow’s novel (published in 1974) and seen Milos Foreman’s screen adaptation (released in 1981), I simply assumed that epic size was required. I was wrong. The Porchlight Music Theatre started its Ragtime run in a tiny 150-seat box in the Theater Building on Belmont in April, and moved to the 461-seat Apollo Theater on Lincoln in June. When I saw it on June 24, I was completely overwhelmed. The PR package calls this a new “jewel box” production. Jewels indeed: diamonds, rubies, emeralds, all!
Ragtime opens in 1906, when American innocence was at its peak. In the prologue, the head of a prosperous family tells us: “There were no Negroes.” His suburban neighbors echo him and add: “There were no Negroes and there were no immigrants.” But they quickly learn how wrong they are as numerous African-American and Jewish characters dance onto stage.
If your primary knowledge of this material comes from the film, you won’t expect much Jewish content, but Doctorow (born in 1931) is the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, and his first successful book (The Book of Daniel) was loosely based on the life of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The musical honors his background by creating a surprisingly big role for Emma Goldman; her passionate oratory is thrilling as song, providing a solid social critique that knits the personal dramas together. And the intimacy of the staging helps us believe that this historical figure might actually have had personal contact with various key characters (some real and others fictional), as they bump and collide throughout.
In her June 18 review, SunTimes critic Hedy Weiss called this “a soaring, tremendously vivid production… sure to set the bar for all future Chicago-mounted musicals.” I agree. Much as I loved the Fiorello! staged by Timeline Theatre Company in June ‘06 (which recently received ten Jeff Citation nominations and won four), I think Porchlight’s Ragtime is even better. Who needs Broadway? Chicago’s musical theater riches are beyond measure!
Ragtime runs through August 26. For tickets, visit: www.porchlighttheatre.com
For an analysis of Ragtime in three media, visit: www.films42.com/feature/ragtime.asp
June 24 was a busy day: before Ragtime I had breakfast with Nathan Englander, in town to discuss his new novel The Ministry of Special Cases at the Lookingglass Theatre on Michigan Avenue. His event was part of “Writers on the Record,” a free monthly literary series hosted by Victoria Lautman and co-sponsored by Chicago magazine and WFMT radio.
The Ministry of Special Cases is set in Buenos Aires during the dark days of the “Dirty War” (1976-1983), when thousands of Argentine citizens–a disproportionate number of whom were Jewish–disappeared. “Part of what interested me about this story was the not knowing of it,” Englander told me. “How is it that we Americans don’t know this story? I was given the Holocaust: ‘never forget.’ But I didn’t know, as I was being taught the Holocaust story, that there was a totalitarian regime in my hemisphere, in my lifetime. This was going on, and we were looking away. It’s always interesting: what people want to know and what they don’t want to know.”
“I went to the testimonies of some of the people living in Israel who had survived,” he continued, “and the stories were amazing. Anti-Semitism surely played into many disappearances, and then again, the social role of Jews. Many were more left-wing. The madness of this book is me toning down a reality that was far madder.”
“There’s a line in my book about trouble; ‘trouble always starts when it starts for you,’ basically,” he said reflectively. “In my own life, my God, I sit here now, having breakfast with you, and in Guantánamo, we’ve suspended habeas corpus. Hundreds of years before people thought slavery might be corrupt, they understood that habeas corpus was a basic human right. What is my responsibility?”
“That’s one of the exciting and wonderful and dizzying and overwhelming things about being a writer,” he concluded. “You work in private, then you put the book out there and you’re in the world. I’m very confused about the absolute, but I like the idea that I can spend ten years and explore the question, build a world, create these people. But maybe my head doesn’t make it to the answer.”
To read excerpts from The Ministry of Special Cases, visit: www.nathanenglander.com
For more information about “Writers in the Record,” visit: www.lookingglasstheatre.org/events/wotr.php
BEYOND THE MULTIPLEX
Adventurous film lovers can find a wealth of buried treasures this month. First up is The Treatment, a new romantic comedy by Oren Rudavsky. Rudavsky is best known for the two superlative documentaries he made with Menachem Daum: A Life Apart: Hasidism in America (1997), and Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance after the Holocaust (2004), so this is quite a stretch. For his first narrative feature, Rudavsky has adapted Daniel Menaker’s novel about a 30something Manhattan man enduring the rigors of psychoanalysis. But not to worry: in the opening montage, an animated couch lifts off in Vienna and keeps heading west until it lands in Central Park; it had me at hello. The name of the main character is “Jake Singer,” so I asked Rudavsky if he was supposed to be related to “Alvy Singer,” the alter ego Woody Allen created for himself in Annie Hall. Rudavsky just laughed: “You’re not the first person to ask me this.” Even though actor Chris Eigeman doesn’t “look Jewish,” his mannerisms certainly do, and Menaker’s “Jake” is clearly identified as a member of the mishpokhe in print.
On the other hand, there’s no mistaking Adam Goldberg aka The Hebrew Hammer, “the Jewish guy” on the Saving Private Ryan team. A seasoned second banana, Goldberg has his best role to date partnering beautiful writer/director/star Julie Delpy in her new film 2 Days in Paris. “Marion,” Delpy’s character, is built on themes developed in Before Sunset (for which she received an Oscar nomination in 2005). Here she’s given herself a love object, “Jack,” worthy of all her keenly self-observed complexities. I laughed, I cried, I loved every minute.
On the heavy side, keep watch for Day Night Day Night. Julia Loktev’s searing drama about a suicide bomber let loose in Times Square was one of the best films I saw at last year’s Chicago International Film Festival, and it’s won several prestigious awards since.
Tziviah bat Yisroel v’Hudah (Jan Lisa Huttner) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples (www.films42.com). Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to Tzivi@msn.com.