Goodspeed's "Rags": Making American Immigrants Great Again

Samantha Massell & Christian Matthew Camporin in "Rags"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The first thing that hits you as the revival of the 1986 musical Rags begins on the Goodspeed Musicals stage is how timely and eerily appropriate it is. In 1910, a hopeful group of immigrants looks for their future in this promising new world, as David Thompson who wrote the new Book for the show notes, and each must decide “what's to be gained and what's to be lost” in this world. Those who are courageous enough to face cultural assimilation head on, and who possess such qualities as “cheek”, are most likely to succeed, but nothing is guaranteed given the name-calling of the sort of Greek chorus (the “quintet”), labeling the new arrivals as “greenhorns”, and much worse. This is what might have happened to Tevye and his five daughters after the curtain fell on Fiddler on the Roof. Who would have anticipated that the trials and tribulations that are echoed today (and yesterday and tomorrow) for immigrants would be even more insidious and relentlessly fascistic than ever before? This revival has heart and sentiment but is rooted in harsh reality.

Looking back at a 1986 program from the pre-Broadway Boston tryout of the musical Rags, one is struck by an odd fact, namely that no one is given credit as the show's director; as it happens, there was a series of directorial changes over the run of the tryout. In his memoir Put on a Happy Face, Charles Strouse, who wrote the score for the show (with Lyricist Stephen Schwartz) describes a rather unique creative process that included his being punched by its star, opera diva Teresa Stratas who allegedly also threw a chair at him. She missed many performances during the Boston tryout, including a thrice-postponed opening night “related to bronchitis”. At the New York premiere it lasted only four performances, yet got five Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical. Having seen the show and its star during the Boston run, and one revival (in 2003 at Boston Conservatory Theater) this critic can also say it surely deserved better. The story is of the early 1900's Eastern European immigrants to America, fleeing prejudice, fear and cynicism, only to be met by the same in their new country; as Strouse asks, “remind you of today?”. He goes on in the memoir to enumerate the show's many musical influences: “music was bubbling in the streets, in brothels, in barrooms and at Bar Mitzvahs; Irish clog dancing met black rhythms and suddenly tap dancing was there.” While it centers on the tale of an immigrant woman's “loves, traditions and indestructibility”, for him, the story is its music. One might infer from the fact that the current production boasts an update of the original, and disappointing, Book by Joseph Stein (who was much more successful with his work in Fiddler on the Roof), here, as revised by Thompson, the libretto has finally had the attention it needed.

At the beginning of the show, a group of people arrive in America on the same boat: Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell), a widow escaping from a village pogrom with her son David (Christian Michael Camporin), and Avram Cohen (Adam Heller) who temporarily houses them, Bella his teenage daughter (Sara Kapner) and Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), a real find, a youth in love with Bella. All find jobs: Rebecca as a dressmaker for the rich Max Bronfman (David Harris); Bella with piecework at home; Ben in a factory; and Avram and David peddling from a pushcart. Rebecca meets Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin),a labor organizer trying to unionize, and starts to fall for him. Meanwhile widow Rachel Brodsky (Lori Wilner) grows to love Avram. Tragedy leads to the radicalization of Rebecca. A strike leaves Rebecca, David, Avram and Ben to make new lives for themselves as another shipload of immigrants arrives. As they say, assimilation is everyone who moves in after you do.

The Cast of "Rags"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The Quintet (J. D. Daw, Ellie Fishman, Danny Lindgren, Sarah Solie and Jeff Williams) noted above provides a threatening view of society's underbelly, and each sings superbly the score, with some new numbers (about the same number of songs as those that were written out of the show). Strouse and Schwartz (also responsible for Wicked and a little show called Annie that had its world premiere at Goodspeed) are still at the top of their game, with their score that includes memorable songs such as Children of the Wind, Blame It on the Summer Night, Brand New World, and the first act closer, Rags.

This production was Directed by Rob Ruggiero, with Choreography by Parker Esse, Scenic Design by Michael Schweikardt, Costume Design by Linda Cho, Lighting Design by John Lasiter, Projection Design by Luke Cantarella, Sound Design by Jay Hilton, and Musical Direction by Michael O'Flaherty. It's a bit of a Fiddler on the Roof Goodspeed reunion, with the same director, choreographer, scenic and lighting designers, and both former leads, Tevye (Heller) and Golde (Wilner). One could also include the same musical director, but that would be cheating, as O'Flaherty has served in that role here at Goodspeed for twenty-six seasons.

Rags is in terrific shape, having trimmed the number of players and focused on the humanity presented by this amazing cast. Massell is a wondrous find both as singer and actor, MacLaughlin is a suitably hunky lead, Camporin is a delight, and even the heavy, Harris, has a fabulous tenor voice. All are firmly and solidly directed by Ruggiero, and perhaps just need to lessen the few overly sentimental moments especially in the second act. As it stands, this new and improved version, with even stronger and more profoundly Jewish storytelling, is a winner.

See it again for the first time, through December 10th.

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