Review of Rags, Goodspeed
The challenges are many for the current Goodspeed production of Rags, the new, heavily revamped version of a musical that first ran on Broadway, briefly, in 1986, and received several revisions in the 1990s. How to compress the “immigrant experience”—so various, so multicultural—into the book for a musical? How to remain true to the spirit of a long bygone era while also tapping into current sensibilities? How to stage tenements and factories and city streets? How to revisit by now familiar struggles without falling into sentimental cliché?
Have no fears, Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz—who came up with new songs—and David Thompson—who wrote the new book for the show—and Rob Ruggiero—who directs with sure pacing—have figured it out. The show is full of many successful touches and the whole jells together to make an involving musical with its heart and head in the right place.
Thompson went back to the earliest intentions of the author of the original book, Joseph “Fiddler on the Roof” Stein. Then, Rags was about an immigrant Jewish family with a patriarch; now, it’s about Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell), a widowed immigrant with a young son, David (Christian Michael Camporin). Key to Thompson’s new conception is that Rebecca finds shelter with the Cohen family—father Avram (Adam Heller) and daughter Bella (Sara Kapner) in a tenement flat where brother-in-law Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg) runs a cottage industry, producing dresses with his wife Anna (Emily Zacharias), for uptown magnate Max Bronfman (David Harris).
The “rags” of the title—already an implied reference to half of the phrase “rags to riches”—are now literalized as part of the activity of sewing. In an early scene, the working of the production line is sung about in a jaunty way by Jack and the others (“Fabric of America”), including schlepper turned sewing-machine operator Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone). It’s a clever way to evoke “rags” and “fabric” while also creating a scene of entertaining choreography—the dance of work (Parker Esse, choreographer).
Key to the show’s success is Ruggerio’s less is more approach. The mainstay of Michael Schweikardt’s versatile set is a detailed, condensed, two-sided flat that spins between the bedroom / living room / workroom and the kitchen, where the Shabbat ceremony is staged in a manner both playful and pious. In such scenes, the older generation—Zacharias, Greenberg, Heller—shines, looking and acting very much the part. The outside world is suggested by tenement-block backgrounds and by greatly enhancing projection designs by Luke Cantarella, which help to convey the immigrant experience with stills and sometimes scurrilous cartoons of the era. Lindo Cho’s costume designs make for some telling contrasts on July Fourth, and help show off Rebecca’s way with a dress.
Another great asset here is Massell’s vibrant Rebecca. Her talents as a seamstress lead her to the fast track, thanks to seductive employer, Bronfman (David Harris is suitably charming and unctuous, reminiscent, perhaps deliberately, of the rich, German playboy in Bob Fosse’s film of Cabaret). Rebecca’s teetering between her earliest American attachments and the stylings of the moneyed create her character’s conflict. Massell’s voice can be stirring, as in “Rags,” an aggrieved song against bigotry that closes Act One, and nicely intimate, as in the roof-top romantic number, “Blame It on the Summer Night” with downstairs Italian neighbor Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin). She also plays maternal well in her scenes with David.
Special mention goes to the youngest member of the cast and to one of the elder: as young David, Christian Michael Camporin turns in a nicely convincing performance with a strong, clear singing voice, and, as Avram, Adam Heller played my favorite character, adding wit and weightiness whenever needed. His scenes with Lori Wilner as Rachel Brodsky, a street peddler who takes a shine to him, are charming and give us “Three Sunny Rooms,” her not-so-coy come on that displays Schwartz’s ease with a clever lyric. On that score, making worker Ben a would-be songwriter strikes close to home, and Salstone gives “Yankee Boy” old-time moxie and puts beauty into “Bella’s Song.”
The romance between Ben and Bella may be a bit underdeveloped and, in general, the tragic dimension of the show feels a bit shoe-horned in for a point. Still, it is a good point and brings in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster as a telling reminder of the evils faced by immigrant populations in their efforts to contribute to the fabric of America and make a good start. The disaster feeds into the labor union activities of neighbor Sal, played with conviction by MacLaughlin. Indeed, making this character an Italian adds both comedy—in his song “Meet an Italian” where stereotypes are compared tongue-in-cheek style—and nicely staged rituals in duet: “Shabbos / Latin Mass.”
Another nice touch is the use of “the Quintet” (J.D. Daw, Ellie Fishman, Danny Lindgren, Sarah Solie, Jeff Williams) who mostly play a group of old school bigots—er, patriots—whose America looks down on, and tries to keep down, any members of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free in their country. It’s a useful reminder that the exclusionary nature of U.S. exceptionalism didn’t begin with the Orange Menace. To that end, the defamation a Jewish mother aims at Catholics, and the violence Irish toughs visit upon Jewish women and children remind how closely akin “neighborhoods” could be to “ghettos.” One the one hand, where people who are alike feel comfortable together; on the other, where people “like that” are forced to remain “where they belong.”
In distinction to Goodspeed’s earlier shows this season—the greatly entertaining Thoroughly Modern Millie and a nearly definitive Oklahoma!—Rags doesn’t aim for anything like the same level of big dances and choruses, but it does let our country’s strengths and inconsistencies shine through in a way that recalls folk opera. Particularly, it shows us how resourceful and inspired immigrants can be in response to the challenges of the new, and how worrisome it is that they came here for liberty and found bigotry.
The repairs to Joseph Stein’s old suit of a show have produced spruce new duds. Stein’s tale has been lovingly re-purposed in a way that does the original conception proud, while also finding new heart in a more straight-forward and timely tale. This show may go from rags to riches yet.
Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Charles Strouse
Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Revised Book by David Thompson
Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Choreographed by Parker Esse
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Scenic Design: Michael Schweikardt; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Projection Design: Luke Cantarella; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Fight Director: Ron Piretti; Assistant Music Director: William J. Thomas; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Vocal Arrangements: David Loud; Dialect Coach: Ben Furey; Casting: Paul Hardt, Stewart/Whitley Casting; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman; Associate Producer: Bob Alwine; Line Producer: Donna Lynn, Cooper Hilton; General Manager: Rachel J. Tischler
Cast: Gordon Beck, Christian Michael Camporin, J.D. Daw, Giovanni DiGabriele, Ellie Fishman, Catalina Gaglioti, Mitch Greenberg, David Harris, Adam Heller, Sara Kapner, Danny Lindgren, Sean MacLaughlin, Samantha Massell, Nathan Salstone, Sarah Solie, Jeff Williams, Lori Wilner, Emily Zacharias
from October 6, 2017