BWW Album Review: RAGS - THE MUSICAL (Original London Cast Recording) is Timely & Beautiful
RAGS, the 1986 musical that started life as both a film and a sequel to FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, has been reworked. This revised version premiered at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, England, in March 2019, before a January 2020 transfer to London's Park Theatre. Now, Ghostlight Records has released RAGS - THE MUSICAL (Original London Cast Recording).
Focused on the story of a Jewish immigrant to New York City from Russia, the musical's examinations of attitudes towards immigration and its frank discussions of labor and unions are timely, even if the lyrics keep the songs from being truly memorable.
The score is penned by Charles Strouse, who is best known for creating the canonical musical scores for ANNIE and BYE BYE BIRDIE. For RAGS, Strouse smartly blends the era-appropriate sensibilities of ragtime with klezmer music throughout the score. He crafts a vibrant aural tapestry that is beautiful, exquisitely so when it blends Jewish and Catholic prayers, and keeps the listener entertained from beginning to end.
Stephen Schwartz, best known for WICKED and PIPPIN, has crafted the lyrics for RAGS. Unlike Schwartz's work for his better -nown musicals, the words he has given these characters lack a certain poetry that fully captures the heart while captivating the mind.
On the scale of serviceable to compelling, most of Schwartz's clunky musical verbiage for RAGS lands squarely in the middle. We get commonplace ruminations of upheld stereotypes like "Italian families like to argue in the street / We go home quarrelling, but then we stop to eat / Then when the meal is done, again we start to yell." Then, instead of artful mantras that cling to the heart, we get plodding declarations like, "We didn't come to America to be hurt again / We didn't come to America to be dirt again."
Carolyn Maitland performs Rebecca Hershkowitz, RAGS's Tveye-like character, with aplomb. Her vocalizations are lush and commanding. Like a star runway model in an austere piece of predictable couture, Maitland sells tunes like "Edge of a Knife," "Rags," and "Children of the Wind" with such vibrancy that you can't help but listen to her.
Tackling the role of the eternally hopeful best friend that is met with a tragic end, Martha Kirby colors her vocals for Bella with indefatigable optimism and levity. Singing Sal Russo, Alex Gibson-Giorgio is suitably charming. Like Rebecca, we can't help but swoon for his roughhewn street smarts and his heart of gold. As the meek yet creative love interest for Bella, Oisin Nolan-Power's Ben Levitowitz is overly saccharine but likeable.
Ghostlight Records' RAGS - THE MUSICAL (Original London Cast Recording) has beautifully preserved a celebrated cast and iteration of this ever-evolving musical. Overall, it's a beguiling listen, but given the moments that led to the material's inception, audiences may find themselves yearning for something that doesn't feel so stilted. RAGS has often been criticized for leaning too heavily on stereotypes and archetypes, and this recording makes it seem that this latest version may still generate such critiques.