"Raggedy Ann" is pretty much what you would expect a musical about a rag doll to be – limp.
This is in fact Joe Raposo's second attempt to make a musical out of Raggedy Ann. He wrote the score for an animated film that appeared in 1977. It had one good song, "Rag Dolly," which has been beefed up and included in this stage version. Both suffer from the fact that none of Raposo's various collaborators has come up with an interesting plot.
Maybe it's because Raggedy Ann herself is something of a mystery woman. We learn nothing of her past, nothing about why she came to look and dress like a scarecrow.
At least with Barbie there would be some romantic interest – she has got Ken. Raggedy Ann's only companion is her goony brother, Andy, though she also has a penchant for picking up stray animals (a panda and a camel with wrinkled knees), which makes her seem even more like a bag lady.
The book, by William Gibson, is obsessed with death – Raggedy Ann is trying to save a little girl from dying. While children's stories have frequently dealt with weighty themes, this one veers uneasily between coyness and show biz sleaze. So its attempts to wrestle with death seem superficial and unconvincing.
As Raggedy Ann, Ivy Austin has a remarkable ability to turn her body into a hopeless jumble. She is a fine singer, able to make a boffo number out of "Rag Dolly," even though she has to sing it in a voice so high and piercing it makes Sandy Duncan seem like a basso. Lisa Rieffel is especially appealing as the little girl, and Elizabeth Austin makes the most of her trampy mother. Leo Burmester, Gail Benedict and Gordon Weiss are surprisingly winning as the villains.
Patricia Birch's direction and choreography tend to reinforce the haphazardness of the way the show is put together. There are occasionally some fetching visual moments in which the fanciful sets and costumes are strikingly lit by Marc B. Weiss.
Any little girl who prizes her own Raggedy Ann doll can probably tell better stories about it than this disjointed and distasteful musical.
The trouble with shows that are for children of all ages is that children only come in one age. Children!
People who remain children at heart are emotionally retarded, and I very much fear that they are the kind of people to whom the new musical "Raggedy Ann," which opened at the Nederlander Theater last night, is primarily aimed.
It was really rather awful. Although it should be admitted that it was determinedly well-intentioned and thoroughly professional. At times almost everything seems to be going right for "Raggedy Ann" except for the show itself.
The book is by the well-versed playwright William Gibson, the music and lyrics are by the "Sesame Street" veteran Joe Raposo, who in the past has written for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Kermit the Frog (or was it Kermit Sinatra and Frank the Frog?), and the whole caboodle – and what a caboodle it is – has been directed and choreographed by the multi-talented Patricia Birch.
However, the credits read better than the show.
The story is of Marcella. Her mother runs away, carried off by smooth talk and a fast car, and her father turns to drink.
Soon little Marcella is on her death bed; the doctors can do nothing with her. Her father sobers up sufficiently to make her a Raggedy Ann doll, and the rest is fantasy.
The doll shows Marcella all about love, convinces her that her mother really loved her, that her father will go off the booze, and that life is worth living. She lives.
The story is a little like "Peter Pan," but with more Freud and perhaps less flying. There is even a Captain Hook creature in the shape of General D – a Death figure who seems to have strayed in from Kurt Jooss's ballet "The Green Table."
We have a comic camel for the very young, and hopefully sexy dancing for the rather older. There are a few moderately low-tech special effects, and some spectacular scenery and costumes, provided by Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral for the first, and Carrie Robbins for the second.
The concept is mawkish, and in its sheer sentimentality potentially offensive to the sensitive. Gibson's book turns out to be unnaturally simple, as if it were a patronizing children's text.
Raposo's music, moreover, proves absolutely painless, tuneful but totally forgettable. It has the savor of yesterday's hamburger to it; you recall that it was mindlessly palatable but totally undistinguished.
Birch, her nature true to her name, whips the show together with awesome efficiency and more imagination than it deserves. A scene in a haunted wood for example (rather terrifying for the kiddier of the kiddiwinks, I should have thought, although, after all, Grimm was pretty grim) is beautifully staged – but to little point.
The performances vary. Probably nothing could be done with the eponymous doll, Raggedy Ann, and if there was, Ivy Austin didn't do it. Equally, Lisa Rieffel seems saccharinely cloying as Marcella, and Bob Morrisey and Elizabeth Austin play the parents (one a drunk, the other a wanton) as the ciphers they are.
The baddies are better, and best of all is Leo Burmester as the wicked, wicked General D.
"Raggedy Ann," which started in Albany and went to Washington, D.C., was sent on a goodwill mission to the Soviet Union in between.
They say the Russians liked it. Fancy that!
The bad news is broken early in Broadway's newest musical, ''Raggedy Ann.'' No sooner does the curtain rise at the Nederlander Theater than the audience is solemnly informed that the heroine's pet canary, Yellow Yum Yum, is dead. One might think that ''Raggedy Ann'' had nowhere to go but up after that, but never underestimate the self-destructive persistence of theater people who just can't bear to part with a terrible idea. Late in Act I, for a production number's sake, they go and bring Yellow Yum Yum back to life.
''Raggedy Ann'' is the musical that, under the title ''Rag Dolly,'' traveled earlier this year to Moscow, where it initiated a new Soviet-American cultural-exchange program. If only the visit had been a few months later, the Americans could have offered to take the show back in exchange for the release of Nicholas Daniloff. This is the kind of kiddies' entertainment in which the words ''heart,'' ''love'' and ''dream'' are plastered over every scene and song, except those that instruct us about the wonders of ''make believe.'' Indeed, a song titled ''Make Believe,'' not to be mistaken for Jerome Kern's, is sung three times in Act I alone.
The musical's creators are not the rank amateurs that the mortifying on-stage chaos, much of it shrouded in dry-ice smoke and carrot-colored wigs, would suggest. The book of ''Raggedy Ann'' is by William Gibson, the distinguished author of ''The Miracle Worker'' and ''Two for the Seesaw.'' The music and lyrics were written by Joe Raposo, a not unsophisticated songwriter known for his contributions to ''Sesame Street'' and the Muppets films. Patricia Birch, the director and choreographer, once made lively contributions to ''Grease'' and ''A Little Night Music.'' But ''Raggedy Ann'' finds all three of these collaborators afflicted by the cutes, which, combined with a low budget and a blue dancing camel even more ubiquitous than Yellow Yum Yum, extinguishes any hope that they might promote their little Ann into an ''Annie.''
Mr. Gibson attempts to construct a fable in the tradition of ''Peter Pan'' and ''The Wizard of Oz.'' His heroine, named Marcella (Lisa Rieffel), journeys from her bed at home to a dreamy never-never land where good and evil battle for command of her soul under the light of a lollipop moon. In the case of ''Raggedy Ann,'' good is represented by the doll of the title (Ivy Austin), a ragamuffin so ''posilutely'' perky that even a Barbie doll might find her a bit much. The bellowing villain, who looks like the bastard offspring of Captain Hook and a wicked witch, goes by the name of General D. The ''D'' stands for ''darkness, decay, dissolution, death'' and, in Leo Burmester's unvaried performance, dull.
What makes the script unpalatable is not so much the old formula Mr. Gibson trots out but his pretentious exploitation of it. ''Raggedy Ann'' is loaded with psychoanalytic subtext -sex, death and even a holocaustal mass grave are always peeking through Marcella's nightmares - but the author apparently considers it beneath him to wrap his highfalutin message in a coherent, let alone exciting, story. Instead we get some confusing incidents about a search for ''a doll doctor,'' interspersed with clinical fantasy sequences that spell out Marcella's adolescent woes without ever reimagining them in the transporting terms of myth. The inert results, by turns incomprehensible and depressing, suggest what might have happened if L. Frank Baum had undergone Jungian analysis - or if a playwright decided to dramatize a Bruno Bettelheim exegesis of a fairy tale rather than the tale itself.
Relief is not provided by Mr. Raposo, who seems to have used the occasion of his Broadway debut as an excuse for auditioning a trunk load of faceless pop songs. The score and lyrics of ''Raggedy Ann'' are so generic that they could have been written for any mediocre musical, not just this specific one. Among the more egregious examples of the shameless song plugging are a boogie-woogie number titled ''Welcome to L.A.'' - which unaccountably yanks ''Raggedy Ann'' into California late in Act II - and a ''Whatever Lola Wants'' derivative in which a big-breasted bat suddenly materializes to render Raggedy Andy randy. The musical's most persistent ditty, inevitably if pointlessly dictated by the title character's name, is a rag. Between ''Rags'' and ''Raggedy Ann,'' this is fast becoming the most ragged Broadway musical season in memory.
Rather than camouflage the show's many frailties, Ms. Birch flaunts them. Her performers are either bland or broad, whether the characters be humans, dolls or the slavishly ''Cats''-like bats. As choreographer, Ms. Birch expends all her energy in an opening sequence in which white-gloved chorus dancers, impersonating Bob Fosse's minstrels in ''Pippin,'' make much suspenseful ado about revealing the production's scenery to the audience. Why bother? The few mean scraps of set that finally emerge, most of them blackish blue or muddy brown, all too literally announce the bruising evening that's in store.
Following that, the most extravagant dance number is a sequence set in heaven in which Ms. Birch demonstrates what Busby Berkeley might have done if he had only a half-dozen dancers and several celestial Hula-Hoops at his disposal. Having been subjected to such interstellar indignities in ''Raggedy Ann,'' is it any wonder that Moscow drew the line at ''Star Wars''?