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A CurtainUp (Not So) Sneak Peek
At the Ford Center For the Performing Arts

January 19, 1998: Our review is now posted!
Ragtime: The Musical
Additional Book Link, January 19, 1998

One of our subscribers seeing our November 25th etcetera feature about the open house scheduled for Sunday 12/14 at the New Ford Center for the Performing Arts wrote: "Events like that, especially if they're heavily advertised, are zoos. When the The New York Times ran several big color ads plus a special Sunday feature on the theater (most savvy New Yorkers read their Sunday paper on Saturday), even I felt a flicker of potential crowd phobia, but having promised several out-of-town CurtainUp readers I would report back on the event, I headed for Forty-Second Street at about 11 o'clock in the morning.

Was The Open House A Mad House?
As I hoped and suspected, anyone who can bring in such a historically and technologically challenging $22.5 million construction project exactly on schedule, should be able to run a smooth and relaxed Open House to easily accommodate all comers. My faith in the savvy of the Livent organization was not misplaced. The theater was filled with friendly, helpful guides and the traffic flow was easy and comfortable. Plenty of pencils and pens to fill out the prize survey slips! . Tons of exit "doggie bags" with sample cassettes (I plan to play mine when I take my aerobic walk tomorrow), a Ragtime key chain and button, a copy of the above mentioned The New York Times Arts & Leisure section plus miscellaneous promotional tie-in literature.

Not Everything was Open at This Open House, But. . .
While the tour wasn't as in-depth as my recent backstage tour of the Metropolitan Opera (See: CurtainUp Takes a Backstage Opera Tour), we saw just enough to get a real first-hand sense of just how a newly built theater and stage house (for holding and moving sets) managed to fit in between the facades of the former Apollo and Lyric theaters and to check whether the sight lines in the second balcony actually were good enough for people buying the low-end tickets to see everything. They are!

I even got a handshake-length interview with Livent's CEO Garth Drabinsky in the Dress Circle lobby. When I asked him about future tours where people might see more of the inner workings of the theater, he didn't rule it out but understadably, his first order of business is addressed, which is, of course, getting Ragtime under way.

Like the New Amsterdam Theater across the street from the 42nd Street entrance -- (Check the box at the end of our review of The Lion King for things to check out when you visit that venue) -- and the New Victory right next door, the Ford Center is a treasure trove of architectural artifacts rescued from history and beautifully restored . However, while the Disney project involved restoring an existing theater, the Ford Center is an amalgam of brand new construction and preservation. The Lyric and Apollo auditoriums are no more, but the facades of one (the Lyric, built in 1903) and the many of the interior elements of the other (the Apollo, built in 1920) have been ingeniously incorporated into a new a structure. The result is a a theater that has married the technological benefits of today with the visual amenities of yesterday into an architectural May-December marriage.

The best way to get a true sense of the way the two facades work as a sandwich for the new building is to walk down 42nd Street on the South side of the street, heading from 8th Avenue to 7th. This will give you your first glimpse of the giant square box that has risen, seemingly out of nowhere in between 42nd and 43rd Street. Then walk around the block for a full view of the more spectacular 43rd Street entrance which further clarifies the blending of the Lyric's facade and the new auditorium and stage house.

The Tour
I walked around the fronts of both entrances before going back to the 42nd Street entrance where the tour began. Here, briefly, is a rundown of what awaits you once you enter the main lobby:

The lobby is spacious enough to accommodate the 1813 seat holders without the usual crush. Lighting that incorporates bare carbon filament bulbs to create a turn of the century candle-like glow. The floor is a mosaic of 172,800 hand-cut pieces featuring the masks of comedy and tragedy -- a recreation inspired by the design elements of the Lyric facade and the the two-storey atrium's centerpiece is a reproduction of the. Lyric's elliptical lobby dome.

Our guides pointed us to the lobby's double staircase which took us to one of the two gratifyingly shallow balconies. By shallow I mean, just eight wide rows, the two front ones, the equivalent of the usual mezzanine, here called dress circle. The balcony we were allowed to walk through was the higher one and looking down at the Ragtime set -- (yes, there's a Model-T you-know-what on stage) -- I could see every detail. My fellow visitors seemed ecstatic at the greater-than-usual leg space and wider than usual seats. The restrooms weren't on the tour, but the fliers about the theater state that the ratio is two-to-one women to men's facilities. The proscenium arch and the boxes which flank the length of each side of the auditorium are from the Apollo. Visitors exiting from this balcony to the dress circle lobby will want to check out the lovely painted glass windows that hide what would otherwise be a rather dull view of 43rd Street.

And Now a Word From Our Sponsor. . .
The Ford presence extends beyond the obvious naming rights. The Ragtime poster to the right of the 43rd St. entrance is balanced by a poster of a Model T. The dress circle foyer has a plaque with a Henry Ford quote: "Anyone who keeps young, stays young." A delightful time-traveling diorama just inside the 43rd Street entrance vividly illustrates the theater's past and present evolution. The left side shows the Lyric with a neon sign emblazoned "Mr. Richard Mansfield" and the same right side has a Ragtime neon. In front of the Lyric's glass topped portico there's a Model T; in front of the Ford Center's there's a red Ford van.

But sneer all you want about the Disneyfication, and now Liventization of 42nd Street, it sure is a lot more fun to walk down a street coming alive with real entertainment and beautifully restored buildings than sleazy enterprises in decaying buildings. So far the 42nd Street revitalization has tied its commercialism to first-class entertainment and while I haven't seen Ragtime in its other location, having read and admired E. L. Doctorow's novel and seen some of the advance press on the show's touring production, I anticipate a quality theatrical experience.
If this report has whetted your appetite to experience a performance, you might want to check out the official Livent Web Site and some of the Ragtime web sites that are bursting out all over Cyber Space. I'm also including some book links for those of you who might wish to read or re-read Doctorow's fine novel:

Livent's Rag Time Site
Toronto-based Rag Time Site Rag Time Fan Site Site
Plume, May 1997 Paperback edition of Rag Time
Modern Library Hard Cover December 1997 Tie-In edition of Rag Time Additional Link, January 19, 1998

January 19, 1998: Before seeing Ragtime: The Musical, I decided to re-read the novel and liked it even better than the first time around. Whether you read it before or after seeing the show, do it. It's a fast and enjoyable read which will extend your pleasure in the theatrical experience. What's more, since Doctorow's panoramic style and mix of fictional with historic characters was actually invented by John Dos Passos in his trilogy U.S.A. which also spans the earlier part of this century. It remains one of my favorite books despite the facts that some of the literati have been carping away at DosPassos' reputation. Since I think seeing the musical and reading or re-reading the Doctorow novel is sure to heighten your interest in American novels of the century's first quarter, I include a link to the only edition currently available

U.S.A. : The 42nd Parallel, 1919, the Big Money , Library of America, Hardcover, 1288 pages,

© December 14, 1997 Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.

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