REVIEW: Rags (Park Theatre) ★★★

The stories of the immigrant experience into America in the early 20th century have been well mined by the film industry, but less so in the theatre. Rags presents the story of Rebecca, a Russian Jew, who has fled to America with her young son, David, after the death of her husband and it follows her story as she seeks to settle and create a life in New York.

The musical opens with Rebecca and David arriving into New York’s harbour along with Bella, a young woman she has befriended on the trip who is travelling to America to live with her father, Avram. As the women travel through immigration on Ellis Island, Rebecca is in danger of being returned to the ship and deported as she lacks the necessary $20 to enter the country. Bella persuades her father to claim Rebecca as his niece, allowing her to leave Ellis Island.

Rebecca and David join Bella, Avram, Uncle Jack and Aunt Anna initially for one night, but when Jack discovers Rebecca’s seamstress ability, she joins the family sewing business and stays.

While Bella soon falls for Ben, the family gofer who dreams of writing and publishing new songs; Rebecca finds herself torn between Italian-American neighbour Sal, a firebrand union leader and Bronfman, the social climbing employer who seems to be offering her a way out of the seemingly inevitable struggles of a first generation immigrant.

As the musical progresses we witness the undulating fortunes of the various characters.

The songs come thick and fast but with only a few real standout numbers and we must wait until the end of the 1st half before we get the first one. As Rebecca and Bella travel uptown to deliver a dress for a fitting, they are attacked and the dress destroyed. As Rebecca stands centre stage with the remains of the dress on the floor around her, she sings “Rags” a plaintive, defiant song of her wish to better herself. In the second half, the developing romance of Avram and Rachel gives us the song “Three rooms” – a funny and poignant number. The show closes with “Children of the Wind” which packs an emotional punch.

This musical (with Book by Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof), Revised Book by David Thompson, Music by Charles Strouse (Annie) and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked)) was written in the early 1980s and first staged on Broadway in 1986 and there is something very old-fashioned about it. The musical is not dated by virtue of it being a period piece, set in 1910, more it feels dated by the fashion and style of the 1980s. It is somewhat over blown and melodramatic when a more subtle, gentle approach could have served the story better.

While most musicals pale in comparison to Hamilton, what Lin Manuel-Miranda does so brilliantly in that show is to tell the tale of a historic period in an exciting and exhilarating manner which captivates a modern audience. I was fortunate enough to see Girl from the North Country this week and that too demonstrates how a period piece (set in 1934) can be delivered perfectly for current times.

The story told in Rags has such resonance to current affairs that it is a real shame it misses the mark as it does, particularly as the cast are really superb.

Carolyn Maitland as Rebecca is sensational, her voice is beautiful and she delivers a believable sympathetic character. Jude Muir as Rebecca’s son David is excellent and utterly adorable.

Alex Gibson-Giorgio as Sal manages to stay just about the right side of cliched Italian-American and delivers his character with heart and passion.

Martha Kirby is excellent as Bella, wide-eyed with excitement for her new life but being thwarted by her worn down, cynical father.

The Klezmer Band – accordion, clarinet and two violins who make up the ensemble are a pleasure to watch.

This is a sizeable cast for the relatively small Park 200 stage but great choreography by Philip Michael Thomas ensures it never feels crowded.

Gregor Donnelly with the set and costume design has done a fabulous job. The use of all the suitcases in the staging is an emotional nod to the millions of immigrants who trod the same path as these characters. The faded colours of the American flag design on the floor is a nice touch, although I did wonder if anyone in the stalls could see it.

This musical has an interesting story delivered by a great cast but doesn’t quite spark to life as it should.

Reviewed by Emma Heath
Photo: Pamela Raith

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