To say that Rags The Musical has had a chequered history would be a total understatement. It opened on Broadway in August 1986 and ran for just four performances. It’s been reworked and revised at least four times before landing at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester last year and has now transferred to The Park Theatre in London.
Originally conceived as a kind of follow up to Fiddler On The Roof (the original book writer of Rags, Joseph Stein, wrote the book for Fiddler) although the music and lyrics for Rags weren’t written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick but by Charles Strouse (music) and Stephen Schwartz (lyrics) and Stein’s book has been revised by David Thompson.
A number of old fashioned suitcases are piled up on the stage as a lone violinist enters the stage (shades of Fiddler here) closely followed by a clarinettist, accordion player and another violinist (all in costume – it’s 1910) and the cases are cleverly rearranged to represent the bow of a ship as the action gets under way. The ship is bringing immigrants to America from the “old country” as part of the Jewish diaspora of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Amongst those onboard are Rebecca (Carolyn Maitland) and her young son David (played at this performance by Jude Muir) and Bella (Martha Kirby), a young girl who’s on her way to New York to join up with her father and befriends the couple. When they arrive, they’re met by Bella’s father Avram (Dave Willetts) who agrees to pretend to be a relative of Rebecca and David so they can enter the country as they’re penniless.
They then go to stay with Avram’s sister (Debbie Chazen) and her husband Jack (Jeremy Rose) in their tiny, tenement apartment on the lower east side where they scratch a living making dresses for Bronfman (Sam Attwater). Bella meets and falls in love with Ben (Oisin Nolan-Power) and Rachel is torn between the exploitative Bronfman and an Italian union agitator Sal (Alex Gibson-Giorgio). As the story of their intertwined lives progress, they encounter rabid anti-Semitism, tragedy, poverty, romance and workers’ rights – all human life is here.
One problem with Rags The Musical is that it seems to have mined the book of Jewish/American clichés without shedding much light on the characters who are all a bit two dimensional. There’s the loving Jewish mother, the angst-ridden Jewish tailor trying to make a living, the widower father who won’t let his daughter out of his sight and the widowed balabusta (Yiddish for a good homemaker) with her eye on the widower. There’s also an Irving Berlin like character who writes songs such as “Yankee Boy”. Added to this are two “Americans” who serve as commentators on the action whilst also leading the anti-immigrant “take our country back” movement – as I said, all human life is here.
The other big problem is that the songs are just a bit meh (Yiddish for ordinary). There’s klezmer, vaudeville pastiche, jazz, ragtime and there’s even a visit to a Yiddish theatre but most of the songs just don’t last long in the memory. That said, there are a couple that stand-out such as a poignant and humorous duet between the widow Rachel (Rachel Izen) and Avram called “Three Sunny Rooms” and the eleven-clock number which ends the show, “Children Of The Wind”, which could be sung outside of the show but that’s about it. Whilst on the whole, Schwartz’s lyrics work, they’re crying out for some of his great melodies which Strouse’s music lacks.
The performances are all excellent with the crystal voiced Maitland giving Rebecca a lot of warmth and Willets is his usual dependable self as Avram although for most of the musical he’s underused which was a shame. The rest of the cast and the on-stage musician/singers/actors (there was small band off-stage too) give great support although I thought Attwater as Bronfman was too young for the role – it needed someone older to be the evil protagonist of the story.
I’m afraid that after over thirty years and a number of re-writes and re-workings, Rags The Musical still lacks that special something. It tries to resonate with today’s terrible world-wide persecution of immigrants and the rise of anti-Semitism but the plot is slight and a little clunky – there’s an event that happens in the second act that was so telegraphed that I spent a big part of the evening waiting for it to happen – and I wasn’t disappointed! The book is clichéd especially in the first act and old school and the songs are in the main, disappointing.
I was really looking forward to seeing Rags The Musical having loved the recent West End production of Fiddler On The Roof. I left the theatre after seeing that show with a tear in my eye; I left the Park last night having wanted to be moved by the story, feeling just a bit meh.
Review by Alan Fitter
RAGS The Musical is a heart-warming and powerful musical, which tells the story of Russian immigrant Rebecca, who, with her son David, travels to America in search of a better life. Rebecca must decide what matters more to her – staying true to her roots or adopting a new cultural identity in an attempt to ‘fit in’.
RAGS The Musical is directed by Bronagh Lagan (Little Women, Broken Wings), with musical direction by Joe Bunker, choreography by Philip Michael Thomas, orchestrations by Nick Barstow, set and costume design by Gregor Donnelly, lighting design by Derek Anderson, sound design by James Nicholson, casting by Jane Deitch and children’s casting by Keston and Keston.
CAROLYN MAITLAND – REBECCA
DAVE WILLETTS – AVRAM
SAM ATTWATER – BRONFMAN
DEBBIE CHAZEN – ANNA
ALEX GIBSON-GIORGIO – SAUL
RACHEL IZEN – RACHEL
SAMUEL JONES – DAVID
JUDE MUIR – DAVID
MARTHA KIRBY – BELLA
OISIN NOLAN-POWER – BEN
JEREMY ROSE – JACK
ARTHUR BOAN – COMPANY
ANGELA CAESAR – COMPANY
ADAM CROSSLEY – COMPANY
DREW DILLON – COMPANY
MATTHEW GENT – COMPANY
NATASHA KARP – COMPANY
BOOK – JOSEPH STEIN
MUSIC – CHARLES STROUSE
LYRICS – STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
REVISED BOOK – DAVID THOMPSON
DIRECTOR – BRONAGH LAGAN
MUSICAL DIRECTOR – JOE BUNKER
DESIGNER – GREGOR DONNELLY
CHOREOGRAPHER – PHILIP THOMAS
LIGHTING DESIGNER – DEREK ANDERSON
SOUND DESIGNER – JAMES NICHOLSON
MUSICAL ARRANGEMENTS – NICK BARSTOW
CASTING DIRECTOR – JANE DEITCH
CHILDRENS CASTING DIRECTOR – KESTON AND KESTON
GENERAL MANAGER – CHRIS MATANLE AND KATY LIPSON FOR ARIA ENTERTAINMENT
ASSOCIATE PRODUCER – PEOPLE ENTERTAINMENT GROUP
CO-PRODUCER – EDWARD PROPHET
CO-PRODUCER – KNOCKHARDY PRODUCTIONS
PRODUCER – HOPE MILL THEATRE
PRODUCER – KATY LIPSON FOR ARIA ENTERTAINMENT
RAGS THE MUSICAL
9 January – 8 February 2020
London N4 3JP