BWW Review: RAGS THE MUSICAL, Park Theatre
Rags the Musical was a flop when it first opened on Broadway in 1986. Which is why, one suspects, it kept on receiving a series of revisions over the subsequent decades.
The most recent of these is now on display in Bronagh Lagan's assured production at the Park Theatre, first performed at Manchester's Hope Mill Theatre in March 2019. David Thompson's revised book, Stephen Schwartz's poignant lyrics, and Charles Strouse's eclectic music (with echoes of ragtime and jazz) join forces to present a fluent rags-to-riches story, but even this reimagined version remains far too formulaic in its portrayal of a group of Jewish immigrants in 1910s New York.
At the centre of Rags is Rebecca Hershkowitz, a Russian Jewish immigrant who arrives at Ellis Island with her ten-year-old son and without any money. What she lacks in resources, however, she makes up in perseverance and courage. In pursuit of golden days in a golden land, Rebecca finds herself welcomed in New York by fellow passenger Bella's extended family.
Bella's father Avram and her uncle Jack not only let Rebecca into their home, but also give her work at their tailor shop, where she starts sewing increasingly popular and profitable dresses. But as anti-Semitic sentiments and industrial unrest escalate around them, Rebecca and her new community are compelled to make hard decisions about who they are and what they want to accomplish in America.
If much about this premise sounds familiar, it's because Rags does not really aim to offer a novel take on stereotypical tales of American immigration in the early 20th century. The plot and language of Thompson's book follow a well-trodden path with one too many clichés; there is barely anything in it that takes one by surprise or conveys a fresh insight.
Still, it's a story worth remembering and dwelling upon, particularly in our current political climate - both in the UK and across the pond. The questions of cultural identity, assimilation and belonging at the heart of Rags have an enduring appeal, because they are firmly rooted, to this day, in the lived experience of many.
This wider lens of the piece is emphasised most eloquently by Gregor Donnelly's set design, in which multiple stacks of suitcases front the brick wall of the Park Theatre's intimate stage. Against this stylish backdrop, Lagan's strong cast do their best to find depth in characters that are often thinly sketched on the page.
Carolyn Maitland's Rebecca exudes benignity and grit, her affirmative presence anchoring many of the scenes. As Avram, Dave Willett delivers an affecting portrayal of paternal anxiety, and Jeremy Rose packs well-tuned humour into Jack. Other notable performances belong to Debbie Chazen (as Avram's sister Anna), Rachel Izen (as Avram's friend Rachel), and Martha Kirby (as Bella).
Lagan's consistently engaging direction manages to handle the sizeable ensemble in dynamic but unobtrusive ways. Philip Michael Thomas's choreography similarly strikes a balance between the understated and the bold.
For all its saccharine details and predictable manoeuvres, Rags proves commendable for its well-intentioned, hearty treatment of immigrant characters whose desires and predicaments are well worth revisiting.
Photo credit: Pamela Raith