A loose-limbed American with shocking red hair is creating a minor sensation in Moscow -- to the tune of music by a man, Joe Raposo, who has long delighted audiences on the other side of the world with songs for ``Sesame Street,'' ``You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown,'' and other TV and stage productions. Raggedy Ann -- known to millions of American children -- is the lead character in ``Rag Dolly,'' an American production now playing at the Moscow Children's Musical Theater. And every show has been a sellout.
The show has been reviewed positively in the state-controlled press. It has been held up as an example of the kinds of exchanges that transcend political differences and promote understanding between two very different cultures.
It has also spotlighted the enduring curiosity about -- and thirst for -- things American in contemporary Soviet society. After a recent performance, a Russian woman, with child in tow, noticed an American woman leaving the theater. She stopped her, beamed a smile, and said:
``Thank you. Thank you. This is wonderful.''
``Rag Dolly'' is a production of the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts (ESIPA) in Albany, N.Y. The playwright is William Gibson, who wrote ``The Miracle Worker'' and ``Two for the Seesaw,'' with Mr. Raposo, the first musical director of TV's ``Sesame Street'' and ``The Electric Company,'' as the composer.
By the standards of the American musical, the production is good, though uneven. Overlong at nearly three hours, the play has a complicated story line that dwells on death and the power of evil. Yet it does have an upbeat ending, innovative staging, engaging songs, and some genuinely compelling moments.
It is, by coincidence, the first American production to open here since a new cultural exchange agreement took effect Jan. 1. The plans for ``Rag Dolly,'' however, were laid well before the agreement was signed.
The staging of the production here is due primarily to the efforts of ESIPA producing director Patricia Snyder, who came to Moscow over a decade ago with another all-American musical, ``The Wizard of Oz.'' Working with the venerable director of the Moscow Children's Musical Theater, Natalya Sats, she arranged an exchange between the two theater companies that will bring the Soviet troupe to Albany in June.
``Rag Dolly'' played here in what is unquestionably one of the world's best theaters devoted exclusively to musical productions for children. The Moscow Children's Musical Theater is set next to a circus and surrounded by parklands in the Lenin Hills above Moscow. An elaborate structure graced by whimsical sculptures, it has live birds soaring in its atrium and a small-scale cafeteria with child-size tables and chairs.
Word that ``Rag Dolly'' was coming spread quickly through the Soviet capital, and Muscovites queued up for tickets in the January cold.
``I wanted my niece to see an American production,'' beamed one man.
The production was specially adapted for Soviet children, with Raggedy Ann (played by Ivy Austin) repeating key lines and delivering clever asides in Russian. Similarly, some songs were performed partly or wholly in Russian. Utterances in the mother tongue inevitably drew applause from the audience.
``Raggedy Ann's Russian was excellent,'' remarked one Moscow mother approvingly.
The play was, in some respects, tailor-made for a Moscow audience. The antagonist was a menacing figure named ``General D,'' attired in a military uniform. He could easily have been taken for an embodiment of the right-wing militarist forces in America that are a staple of Soviet propaganda.
The plot concerns a young girl, Marcella (played by 14-year-old Tricia Brooks), who has been consigned to death by muddle-headed doctors. But she is saved, largely through the efforts of her Raggedy Ann Doll, which springs to life and, along with other dolls and stuffed animals, leads her through various adventures. Ultimately, love is the redemptive power in the play, winning out over some evil characters that some mothers found a bit too menacing for a young audience.
Some no-holds-barred staging (beds turn into boats, and fish leap from trapdoors under the stage) kept young audiences enchanted, even when the story got a bit convoluted. One Russian man, fluent in English, said he found the plot twists and turns a bit hard to follow.
Yet the best measure for the success of the production would seem to be the children of Moscow. They are, in comparison with American youngsters, exceedingly disciplined. They sit quietly, listening with rapt attention, throughout the three hours of theater. Afterward, they applaud for minutes on end and pelt the stage with flowers -- a characteristically Russian way of showing enthusiastic approval.
Moscow theatergoers said the American production was livelier than a typical Soviet production, with more elaborate staging and a more rollicking pace.
Tass, the Soviet News Agency, pronounced the premi`ere performance a ``great success with young Muscovites.''
Many of the children are enrolled at special English-language schools, and some responded by singing songs in English for the cast and crew after the shows or at specially arranged ``jam sessions.''
One member of the American company said many cast and crew members have been moved close to tears by the enthusiastic response of the Soviet audiences.
Said the Moscow Children's Theater's Natalya Sats before the start of one performance, ``We must have cooperation between our countries. We must live in peace and friendship.'' ESIPA's Patricia Snyder says the staging of ``Rag Dolly'' here was a mission of ``peace and love.''
The children of Moscow -- too young to have grown cynical, and wise enough to know something of love, even if it's voiced in a foreign tongue -- would surely agree.