by Mark G. Auerbach
Goodspeed Musicals’ ambitious revisal of a famous Broadway flop, Rags, has so much going for it. Its creators revamped its plot, and took its exquisite score, and enhanced it with Dan DeLange’s superb orchestrations. Some characters from the original are gone; some characters are retooled, and others are given more contemporary purpose. And, the story of America’s turn-of-the-century immigrants and the public’s reaction to them, seems more poignant in terms of today’s current events.
Rags had high hopes, when it launched its pre-Broadway tryout in Boston in 1986. It featured a high caliber creative team. Joseph Stein, librettist of Fiddler on The Roof wrote the script. Charles Strouse of Bye Bye Birdie and Annie fame wrote the music. Stephen Schwartz, composer and lyricist of Godspell and Pippin, wrote the lyrics, and the cast featured the beloved Metropolitan Opera diva Teresa Stratas in her Broadway debut. Rags, set in New York’s Lower East Side in 1910, told the story of Rebecca, a Jewish immigrant from the shtetl, who came to America in search of finding her husband. The tryout was full of problems, andRags moved on to New York with little advance sales, little money in the bank, and little audience interest, Who wanted to see aFiddler v2, when the hot tickets in town were Cats, A Chorus Line, 42nd Street and La Cage Aux Folles?
Rags closed after four performances, but an original cast recording was made, albeit with Julia Migenes instead of Teresa Stratas, and the music and lyrics have become classics. There have been numerous attempts at reviving Rags over the year. Goodspeed, with TheaterWorks director Rob Ruggiero helming the revisal, and Strouse and Schwartz ready to review and revise, went to work. Stein had passed away, and new scripter David Thompson joined the team.
The Goodspeed team added some characters, deleted others, moved songs around, dropped a few, found some others, and completely revamped Rags with a more concise vision. Rebecca is now a woman with a trade, who wants a better life for her son and herself. The many subplots of Rags have been refocused.
The Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz score is one gem after another, and the new book, which takes a while to pick up steam, is fused with the almost sung-through musical. Rob Ruggiero’s direction, combined with Parker Esse’s charming choreography brings out the best of Rags, on a complex and innovative revolving set designed by Michael Schweikardt , with outstanding projections by Luke Cantarella. Linda Cho’s costumes run the range from shtetl schmattas to uptown elegance.Rags is a feast for the eyes and the ears.
Ruggiero’s cast is perfect. Samantha Massell’s performance as Rebecca, is a powerhouse, with strong assertive vocals and nuance. Sean MacLaughlin, who I found so commanding a presence in the Evita tour at The Bushnell a couple of years ago, gives an equally unforgettable performance as an Italian immigrant, Sal, who takes an interest in Rebecca. Ruggiero brought David Harris, an alum of TheaterWorks’ Next to Normal, to Rags as a character not in the original. He’s terrific, as are Adam Heller and Lori Wilner, who played Tevye and Golde in Ruggiero’s Goodspeed production of Fiddler on The Roof. I very much iked Nathan Salstone’s performance as Ben, a schlepper turned songwriter and Sara Kapner as Bella. The ensemble is great on every level.
I saw Rags during its Boston tryout in 1986, and Imy take-away was the exquisite score. I just didn’t relate to the characters and the story. Now, after seeing Ragtime at Barrington Stage and Newsies at Connecticut Repertory Theatre in the last few months, I think that Rags may have the most powerful story to tell about America’s rapid growth and change at the turn-of-the-century. It certainly brings immigration issues center stage, and the difficulties people face in a brand new world. The cast shared where their families came from in their bios. Rags reminds us, as one of its most powerful ballads says, we’re all “children of the wind”.
Goodspeed Musicals presents Rags. Book by Joseph Stein. Revised book by David Thompson. Music by Charles Strouse. Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Directed by Rob Ruggiero. Musical direction by Michael O’Flaherty. 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. Wig & Hair Design by Mark Adam Rampmeyer. Orchestrations by Dan DeLange. Vocal Arrangements by David Loud. Through December 10..Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT. For tickets: 860-873-8668 orwww.goodspeed.org.
Mark G. Auerbach studied theatre at American University and the Yale School of Drama. He’s worked for arts organizations and reported on theatre for newspapers and radio. He produces and hosts ArtsBeat Radio on 89.5fm/WSKB.