Ragtime: A Review

I didn't have the pleasure of seeing Ragtime the first time that it was on Broadway 10 years ago. I've read the reviews though, essentially everyone agrees that it was a great show, had enormous potential, but that the production was a bit lacking, and would be too big for very many theaters off Broadway to ever produce. It is sort of a white whale of a show requiring a cast of around 40, a car, several widely varied locations, a ton of period costuming... it really is a difficult show to put on with any sort of a small budget. Thankfully the Kennedy Center produced a new large scale production that was so well received that it was brought to Broadway again, a bare decade since it originally closed, which is pretty unusual. But I agree, this show is well worth it, and more than ready to come back.

The show itself is an odd animal, and sort of weirdly presentational. No one outside of the historic characters (like Booker T Washington and Harry Houdini) has a name, and instead refer to each other as "Mother" or "Father." The most off putting being "Younger Brother." It is just an awkward mouthful, especially when the character refers to himself in third person that way. Once you get past this quirk though the show is packed with drama and story. Three families interweave through a single year in their lives, 1906, and any one of the families' stories would be more than enough to pack most shows, but the deft weaving of these threes stories is where the real power of this show lies.

There are some powerful performances here. Christiane Noll as "Mother" is by far the strongest performance in the show. Her character arc cuts to the heart of everything that was happening in this era, changing attitudes on race, and on the woman's place in society, the changing role of the mother, the new attitudes about child rearing and family... it is a lot to carry, and she does it perfectly. Every line, even the third person expository toss offs, are wrung fully dry of their meaning, and it is at turns hilarious and heart breaking.

The other outstanding performance is Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse Walker. Here is another role burdened by layer after layer of story, a ragtime piano player with an illegitimate child who is struggling to be the perfect example of his race as Booker T Washington has taught him, but at the same time being crushed under institutional racism. Coalhouse has some power-packed songs that will leave you breathless, and handles two of the shows biggest props, the car and the piano, with grace.

The set is a wonder, a three story cast-iron style catwalk that with ease becomes a ship, a factory, a home, a theatre, a library... a dozen things. The set is minimal in some ways but full of Victorian styling if you know where to look. It echos the cast-iron buildings of Soho and middle Manhattan, as well as place like the Crystal Pavilion and the the original Penn Station that were so important to the aesthetics of this era. The larger props follow this idea, being little more than frameworks that suggest the prop, but keep them in the light and airy style of the set. (You can sort of make out the piano in the background of this shot.) It is an incredibly versatile way of creating the set that supports the show, but leaves most of the visual cueing to the costumes, which are also beautiful, and easily capable of supporting the show. The color coding at the top of the show (the white cast in creams and tans, the black cast in rusts and yellows, the immigrants in grays and blacks) is incredibly effective, and that sort of thought carries through the show, leaving the big "pops" of color to the entertainers (Evelyn Nesbitt and Harry Houdini) or the bands that march through on occasion. My only wish is that the set designer had trusted his concept and run with it for the whole show. Tateh's cart, the library furniture and the funeral wagon, are all far too real and solid, and step away from the way everything else is presented in a distracting way. The worst example is the street light that is dragged in for Coalhouse's dream in Act 2. It doesn't turn on (that may have been an error, this is still in previews) doesn't match the style of the set, and adds very little to the sequence. Cut it and trust the set to do its job, it is succeeding wildly on most other occasions. My other tiny quibble with the set is the central catwalk, that raises and lowers at several points in the show. They seriously need to check the rigging on that thing. There is a point in the second act where about 8 people are standing on it and with each new person that stepped on it dropped several inches. It took me right out of the show because I was afraid for the actors! I have no idea if anyone besides me would ever notice such a thing though.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that this production also boasts a 28 piece orchestra. Most Broadway productions these days make do with 15 pieces, if that, and I really never knew what an experience I was missing. The full rich sound that this orchestra produces is far superior, and will make you long to hear other shows produced this way.

In all, a nearly 5 star show. I am very happy to have seen it and would recommend it to anyone who is coming through the city.


Fire The Graphic Designer!

No doubt this time... FIRE the graphic designer.



Calendar Oddities

In the course of talking with a friend while hiking the other day I admitted to three moments of deep geekery when it comes to calendar dates in my life.

1) Today is Darwin 15th, 40 -- Sometime around 11th grade I read an article touting the "Tranquility Calender." A 13 month calender, designed for scientific use where each month has 28 days, and dates fall on the same day every year. To account for the 365th day there is Armstrong day, a day outside any month, and in leap years Aldrin day. I promptly started dating all of my papers and notes using this system. That lasted for about a year.

2) Today is the Feast of St. Bartholomew -- In art school I began a fascination with Saints Icons and Saints Days, and promptly started appending any date that I wrote down with the appropriate Saints Day. That lasted about two years.

3) Today is the first day of World Hearing Aid Awareness Week -- A few years ago I began an ongoing fascination with... odd holidays... you can read all about those here.

So... what does it say about me that for years now I have been looking for alternative ways to mark events in my life?





So... have you ever had one of those periods where you crave the same food over and over sort of irrationally? I'm sort of in the middle of that now. Caramel apples. I know, right? But at least marginally better for me than the period I spent eating a large brownie with milk every evening. (At least that's what I tell myself.)

For a few weeks my local grocery had them, and I was able to get them with ease. And now they don't... but I still want them. What the hell am I supposed to do? Anyone know a good source for caramel apples?


208: Photo Phriday: Kniphe

Fire The Graphic Designer!

Ladies and Gentlemen! It's time for my new favorite game: Why The Graphic Designer Should Have Been Fired!

Today we have a subway ad for the Nova special "Becoming Human," a three part Nova series on human evolution.

The ad jokes that you can become human in "6 million simple steps" and lays out the first few:

1) Get out of tree
2) Grow big brain
3) Scratch vigorously
4) Shed
5) Flee animals
6) Chase animals
7) Make tools
8) Make fire
9) Make small talk... there are one or two others that are visible on other versions of the ad.

So what do we see? First there are some gross over-simplifications, like step 2. Whether we grew larger brains after leaving the trees, or as a part of being better able to move in trees is part of a huge debate. But we can leave that aside as just being advertising, I'm sure the actual Nova episodes go into more detail. Then there is the odd ordering of the steps... is shedding of body hair so important that it needs to be step 3? And did we really shed it before we discovered fire and tools? Our cousins the Neanderthal used tools, but we generally consider them to still be fairly hairy and apelike. But again... artistic license to tell a story quickly and easily in an ad.

What I really object to are the illustrations that accompany steps 5 through 7:

Flee animals... chase animals... make tools.

A pretty simple concept, right?

So why then does the human in step 6 already HAVE a spear? Is a spear not a tool? I mean... it's only 10 steps... you'd think you could get them in a fairly appropriate order... right?

So what do you think? Fire the graphic designer, or no?

(And for the record, yes... this is the type pf thing that I think about when the train is too crowded to draw...)



In Which I Surprise Someone

I guess I still have the power to surprise people after all... Peter Filichia, blogger and reviewer for TheatreMania had this to say in his Sept. 30 month wrap-up:

"Most Unexpected Line of the Month in Someone’s Bio: Cully Long (Set/Props Design for Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type at Manhattan Children’s Theatre) “was part of the design team on the Pope’s recent audience at Ground Zero.” Who knew that a design team was needed?"

As a theatre reviewer you'd think he'd realize that that sort of stuff doesn't happen in a vacuum... I mean, where did he think that stylish yellow stage came from?


That Last Box

I moved 1 year, 4 months ago. This weekend I unpacked the last box.

Technically it wasn't a box, it was a pile. A pile of books that we didn't have room for, so they got pushed into a corner and forgotten. Since then they have been a place for the cat to nap, for dust to collect, and for us to generally not look at, and wish it would go away. Last week we received delivery of 4 new book shelves, which means that for the first time in 16 months all of the books have a home. Every last one of them. KF spent the weekend playing librarian, and arranging books in an arcane system that only he really understands, which led to a flurry of other cleaning and arranging. That box of papers that he had been ignoring since he started school? Filed! The space in the breakfront that was housing junk? Empty! The broken bed frame that has been held up by a stack of books for the entire three years we've been dating even though I brought a new one with me when I moved in? Replaced! KF really did all the work, I have to admit, but it is awesome to finally have things closer to a perfect order. The next, and really last, thing to tackle is the kitchen. There is some serious rethinking to be done in there though, which will probably require a new piece of furniture or two... anybody know where I can get a good pantry?



Subway Sketch



Remember how... just a few days ago... I was saying how happy I was that it was fall, and how much I was looking forward to the cool weather, but that I would probably be over it soon?

Well, it happened a hell of a lot sooner than I imagined. This SUCKS. There goes my weekend plans...


Movie Theatre Overheard

Went to the movies tonight (Paranormal Activity... not as good as it should have been...) and during the commercials before the previews was a commercial for Outback Steakhouse. Behind me this conversation occurred as a result:

Girl1: You Robin went to Australia right?
Girl2: Yeah, how was it?
Girl1: They totally didn't have Bloomin' Onions. They told her they never heard of it.
Girl2: What?! Why would anybody go there then?

Weep people. Weep for the fact that these girls will be your future caretakers.




Can I just tell you much I fucking LOVE this cat? He lives in a pet store that I pass on the way to work everyday. He sits perfectly still right outside his shop, letting himself be petted, watching the people pass. Completely nonplussed by anything.

And he has a bigger wardrobe than I do.


Oct 12 of 12

Another month, another 12 of 12, Chad Darnell's photo-documentary project. See the other participants here.

My theme this month was "The Colors of Fall." I'm liking the cooler weather, though, in a few weeks I'm sure I'll be complaining about it.

Getting ready for work. I had tuna, (with my new favorite tuna salad recipe) and these carrots.

Spotted on the way to my office.

Ultraman stalks the apple I brought for my afternoon snack.

A magazine in the lobby of my office. We've been trying to figure out where they come from. They appear every few weeks on the table, by magic it seems. There is no subscription tag, no one in the office seems to see anyone drop it off.. yet there it is, like clockwork.

A little light reading with lunch.

Headed home!!

The Thomas Hart-Benton mural in the lobby of the building, it is a tribute to the American worker. Typical Hart-Benton stuff.

A grocery on my walk home. Pumpkins are the surest sign that the weather is cooling and that fall is on the way!

My corner. The orange and the purple are nice together, don't you think?

I guess lobbies are a mini-theme this month. One of the many murals in my apartment building lobby.

Kid Flash made me snickerdoodles!! I do love him.

And to bracket my day with carrots a felt carrot that is part of a craft project that I am working on. Isn't it cute?



Open House

Today was Open House New York, an annual two day event where lots of places around the city that are typically closed to the public are open and available for tours. Since more and more places have been closed since 9/11 it is a very exciting event, the one chance that most people will get to see the lobby of the Chrysler building, or an MTA substation, or the secret corridors between the windows at Grand Central.

Kid Flash and I had one of our very early dates during this weekend back when we met, and we toured Highbridge tower, and a building out on Roosevelt Island. This weekend we chose three places to see.

First up was the Society of Mechanics and Tradesman, a former technical school, and home of one of the first unions. It was an interesting building, and certainly not somewhere that I would have considered visiting on a regular day, but the most interesting thing about it turned out to be the enormous collection of locks that they had on display in the library.

Next up was the Grand Temple of the Masons. The home of the Masons in New York state and the building where some 60 different Lodges of Masons meet weekly. There are 12 different Lodge rooms, each designed in a different style. Sounds cool, right? It was pretty awful actually. The rooms ended up being over-designed boxy affairs with plaster casts of various ornaments, columns, and what-not. It was all restored in the 90's and as we were reminded over and over again all the rooms, ornaments and all had been painted beige for decades up to that point. Instead they are now painted in multi-color gaudy schemes with some (not very well done, frankly) faux finishes. The people with us on the tour seemed most interested in asking questions about Masonry (doubtless fuled by Dan Brown and bad Discovery Channel pseudo-docs), which just served to drag things out further, and so the half hour we were supposed to be there turned into nearly 2 hours. The half hour would have been more than enough.

We wrapped up the day with the real gem, Grace Church on the lower East side. The cool thing here wa sthe stained glass, all over the church, in a huge variety of styles and periods ranging over nearly 200 years.

Subway Sketch







Homesick Mysteries

Today SHORPY (one of my favorite blogs) ran the following photo:

It is a 1905 photo of Savannah, GA, where I consider my hometown. I was instantly curious to see if I could figure out exactly where it is. I knew right away that it was downtown, there are cable car tracks in the lower section of the photo, and they only really ran down there. There are a limited number of streets in the downtown area that have medians in the center as this one does, looking at Google maps I narrowed it down to Jones, Liberty or Oglethorpe. All of which run roughly east to west, so this photo was facing either north or south. You can see the river in the distance, so it had to be north.

Then it was a matter of picking out details. This building is the old county jail, now a SCAD building, and is on Habersham. You can also see a few of the tombstones from Colonial Cemetery, in the middle area of this closeup. So, it had to be north of Jones, and was most likely Liberty.

This bell is visible on the left of the photo, and I knew it to be a fire bell that used to be in front of the old fire department. I looked up where that was and discovered that the bell was on Oglethorpe. It is no longer up in that tower, but has been dropped to the ground and is part of a fireman's memorial now, but it is in the same place as it always was. That pretty much confirmed that this was Liberty street, but I still couldn't make out where exactly. I thought that it had to be Bull street, judging from the positions of the jail and bell. It bothered me though that the building weren't still there. They are barely over 100 years old, and downtown Savannah hasn't changed that much.

I know that SHORPY uses photos from the Library of Congress archives, so I went there to see if I could track the original. After finding it I was able to get an uncompressed archival version of the photo, which was much higher resolution than the photo that SHORPY posted. I was amazed that upon zooming in I was able to see this:

On the corner of the building are the street signs for Liberty, and hidden behind the shutter is "YTON" or Drayton street. Amazing!

This corner of Liberty and Drayton now houses the Drayton Towers, an abomination of International Style architecture that I doubt would be allowed to be built in the historic district of Savannah today. I even lived there very briefly in the mid 90's!

This was a serious obsession with me for about 3 hours this evening, panning back and forth in Google Street View trying to figure this out... thankfully I was able to work it out, and I don't have to obsess for days on end.