<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The first American performing group to visit the Soviet Union under a new cultural exchange agreement is winning ovations with a musical about Raggedy Ann, the doll loved by generations of American children.

The group, the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts of Albany, N.Y., appears to be overwhelmed by the friendly and favorable reaction.

“It’s a thrill because the audiences are, to put it mildly, wildly enthusiastic,” Patricia B. Snyder, the group’s producing director, told a reporter.


An audience of 1,000 Soviet adults and children gave a three-minute standing ovation to Ivy Austin, who plays the red-headed doll, after she sang the title song of the musical, “Rag Dolly,” in Russian.

The troupe also caused a sensation at intermission by passing out letters from schoolchildren in the Albany area. The actors were surrounded by Soviet youngsters eager for American pen pals.

A 9-year-old boy named Volodya stood in line for autographs after one performance and said, “I love this American theater. I especially liked the dolly.”

“We just loved it, loved it!” Tamara Derevyanshchikova told the Associated Press. “I am only unhappy that I don’t speak English. I’ve never seen a musical before, but I can say that I really like this kind of theater.” Her 12-year-old son, Alyosha, said he wanted to see “lots and lots more” American shows.

“We are having a ball,” William Gibson, the playwright, said. His earlier play, “Two for the Seesaw,” has already been produced in Soviet theaters; he is also the author of “The Miracle Worker.” The music was composed by Joe Raposo of “Half a Sixpence” and “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”

Scott Schafer, a Chicago actor who plays the part of Raggedy Andy, said, “These are the most appreciative audiences I ever worked in front of.”

The cultural agreement was signed last Nov. 21 at the Geneva summit between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The Empire State group had been chosen to take part more than a year before the agreement came into force on Jan. 1.

Snyder and Natalia Satz, director of the Children’s Musical Theater of Moscow, where the American production is being staged, have been discussing an exchange for more than a decade. In 1974, Snyder directed a stage version of “The Wizard of Oz” in the Soviet Union, and its success helped nail down this year’s visit.

Eighty-eight American actors, singers, dancers, musicians, stagehands and other personnel made the trip to Moscow and are giving eight performances. All the actors are Americans, but half the stage crew and 14 of the 20 musicians are Soviet citizens, who work with their American counterparts through interpreters and sign language.

Two of the songs have been translated into Russian, a few Russian words and phrases have been added in key places, and an announcer gives a preview in Russian before the first and second acts.

The story of how Raggedy Ann helps to save a little girl from an early death with the aid of other dolls appeals to adults as well as children. Audiences have reacted with resounding applause, in the form of rhythmic single claps that show a Soviet audience is especially pleased by a performance.

“They are not used to American musical theater, where performers not only act but sing and dance as well,” a spokesman for the company said.

Schafer said, “We use trapdoors and even fireworks on stage, and it’s more of a spectacle than they are accustomed to seeing.”

Mark Baird and Peter Davis, two of the technical supervisors for the group, described the Soviet cooperation as “fantastic,” even though extensive work was required for the staging here.

“We hope to exchange the same courtesies when their theater visits us in Albany,” Baird said.

Soviet performers are scheduled to do the ballets “Blue Bird” and “Peter and the Wolf” next June in Albany.