Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of RAGS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL at Goodspeed Musicals
Through December 10th
My father, who had been a horse trader in Russia, got himself a horse and a small wagon, and became a ragman, buying old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for pennies, nickels, and dimes …. Even on Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder. And I was the ragman’s son. — from the book, The Ragman’s Son
Rag: a piece of old cloth, especially one torn from a larger piece, used typically for cleaning things. – Merriam Webster
Goodspeed Musicals’ retooled, revamped, reworked version of the almost-forgotten Joe Stein’s Rags, is a powerful, thought provoking, and utterly inspiring piece of theatre. The period of time when America was known as the “melting pot,” circa 1910-1911, is brilliantly resurrected via video projection of period stills depicting immigrants and their immigration to the United States; authentic set pieces and backdrops that conjure the stark images of the tenements on the Lower East Side that existed at that time; a cast to die for; a dynamic musical score; and, of course, masterful direction.
The new adaptation is riveting because it is the story of US (double entendre intended). It is probably more relevant to the issues we are facing with respect to immigration today than when it was written originally. Legendary playwright Joe Stein, who wrote the books for Fiddler on the Roof and Zorba the Greek, originally penned Rags for the cinema, but decided it was destined for the stage after he finished it. According to David Thomas, who rewrote and reworked Mr. Stein’s original book, the original version “was a stormy process that ran aground on the shoals of Broadway.” While I did not read or see the original version, I got the feeling from my research that the play had an epic sweep to it that probably would have been received better as a film than a stage play (and I daresay Mr. Stein’s original gut instinct was correct). Like the reworking of Broadway’s Titanic to scale it back and make it more accessible to smaller venues, David Thompson undertook the Herculean task of readapting the original book. Hercules, himself, would have been proud of the finished product. As Mr. Thompson set out to do, he captured as he calls it, “the original idea that sparked Joe’s imagination” by delving into the core motif – the struggle of cultural assimilation – what do you leave behind, what do you take with you, and what do you adopt? To say that Mr. Wilson scaled back Joe Stein’s original vision would not be accurate. Similarly, to say that he took the characters in Fiddler and transplanted them in early New York also would be incorrect and somewhat trite even though similarities and comparisons can be made about the two plays. In reality, Mr. Thompson’s vision is not just a reworking, but a nuanced and layered new play that Joe Stein himself would be ecstatic over.
The story follows the immigration of a young Jewish widow, Rebecca, and her son, David, to the United States. Without giving too much of the several key reveals away, she finds common ground with other immigrants who become her friends and, ultimately, her support system. It is a coming of age story not only for her son who is on the cusp of adolescence (and several of the other older characters), but especially for Rebecca. Like South Pacific’s cock-eyed optimist, Nellie, at the beginning of her journey we find the character of Rebecca is filled with enthusiasm, hope, and a good portion of vulnerable naivete. At one point, we see that optimism and hope for a new life in America ripped and torn apart, virtually into rags. But the same grit that has made her pick up her life and her son and cross oceans to a new country enables her to assemble those split and torn rags into a new and better life.
In many ways, I cannot stand it when an entire cast is so wonderfully talented and so enmeshed in their characters, that it would take reams of paper to properly analyze and review the highlights of their individual performances. Alas, such is the case here: not one weak link in each of the triple threats that traverse the stage. Indeed, their transformations into their characters were so great that I could not recognize them from their headshots on display in the lobby. So kudos to the entire cast in alphabetical order: Gordon Beck, Christian Michael Camporin, J.D. Daw, Giovanni DiGabriele, Ellie Fishman, Catalina Gaglioti, Mitch Greenberg, David Harris, Adam Heller, Sara Kapner, Danny Lindgren, Sean MacLauglin, Samantha Massell, Nathan Salstone, Sarah Solie, Jeff Williams, Lori Wilner, and Emily Zacharias.
While staging a play like Rags is truly a collaborative process, Individual kudos should be given to Joe Stein (original book); Charles Strouse (music); Stephen Schwartz (lyrics); David Thompson (revised book); Michael Schweikardt (scenic design); Linda Cho (costume design); John Lassiter (lighting design); Michael O’Flaherty (music design); and Mark Adam Rampmeyer (wig and hair design). (I am so tired of seeing terrible wigs even on the Broadway boards that look like roadkill.)
Of course, the successful immigration of the characters and their stories could not have been accomplished without the truly authentic and creative vision of a seaworthy captain at the helm of such a tight ship who can navigate the often treacherous waters of a play like Rags with so many moveable parts. I am speaking, of course, about veteran Director Rob Ruggiero. Unlike most one-note theatre directors, Rob has the rare ambidextrous ability to direct both musicals on the one hand and dramas on the other. When you have plays like Next to Normal and Rags, which are inherently musical dramas, Rob’s skills work like nuclear fission with the results being powerfully explosive. Such is the case with his nimble and adept direction of Rags.
Rags is an apt title for we are all like rags – raw material, torn from larger parts, that must ultimately be woven into something bigger – and in this case it is the fabric of American society. While watching the ups and downs of the characters of Rags, I was reminded of the story of the immigration and cultural assimilation of Issur Danielovitch, the Ragman’s son, whose lust for life has led him to achieve the American dream. He is, of course, better known as Kirk Douglas.
Mahatma Ghandi said, “A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and the soul of its people.” Truer words may never have been spoken, for it is in the heart of every individual as well as the collective soul of its members that makes a great nation. It is not through color (or ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientation, among other variables) “blindness” that a culture will be enriched – the unadulterated ignorance of diversity – but on the other hand, an appreciation for and embracing of the beauty of the differences which comprise a people.
While today we may have deeper understanding of the importance diversity (albeit we still have a long way to go) such was far from the case in the early 1900s. The threat of the so-called “inferior stock” coming into our country at that time made it challenging for immigrants to assimilate, find work, and even feel safe. Heterogeneity was not espoused – and whitewashing, name-changing, ignoring one’s cultural practices, and/or adhering to the ingroup/outgroup mentality was instead, the norm.
This all is at the heart of the newly reimagined Rags: An American Musical, with original book by Joseph Stein, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, and revised book by David Thompson. A spectacular story of opportunity, optimism, and hope in the new world weaves history with fiction and is as relevant today as it was over a century ago. And that is because the ills that burdened the characters in Rags are essentially the very same as American immigrants face in our current era. This timely adaptation will tug at your heartstrings while it also weighs heavy on your soul.
When widowed Rebecca Hershkowitz and her son David meet fellow immigrant Bella Cohen on a ship bound for Ellis Island, they immediately develop a connection. Sharing similar dreams but with different life trajectories, they pine for whether they’ll ever meet again. But as the fates would have it, they do not separate – and their lives in America became forever entwined. With no money and no one to claim her and her son, Rebecca implores Bella and her father Avram (who’d already been in America for two years) to take them in, promising they’ll earn their keep.
Avram takes the three newest “greenhorns” back to his sister and brother-in-law’s cramped tenement on the Lower East Side. Sister, Anna Blumberg, is thrilled to have a home now filled with life, love, and youth; her husband Jack, well, not so much. But with help of young Ben Levitowitz, they all work together to make ends meet by sewing dresses, which are then sold to magnate Max Bronfman for measly piecework wages. Avram, an educated man in the old country, begrudgingly attempts to bring in additional money selling wares from a pushcart which he does alongside chatty widow Rachel Brodsky. Despite everyone’s long hours of toiling, bound to their culture, all work stops on Shabbos when they break bread, aided and sometimes joined by Sal, the “goy” Italian neighbor who comes to bring light into the apartment in more ways than one.
Finding their way is not easy for any of them. Being immigrants, Jewish (and in Sal’s case, Italian), not speaking the language, having few skills and fewer opportunities, and being exploited by others are among their many challenges. The title, Rags, also speaks volumes. One can clearly discern the upper class from the lower immigrant class simply by examining one’s garments – the former in upscale attire, the latter in well-worn rags (who ironically also are responsible for construction of the finery). Like the ups and downs of life, Rags is alternately funny and uplifting, distressing and heartrending.
The spectacularly talented cast of Rags lights up the stage in true triple-threat fashion; acting, singing, and dancing both on the boards and as is often the case at Goodspeed, in the aisles and balconies. Each integral cog in the wheel ensures that the machine runs smoothly. Samantha Massell as Rebecca is outstanding. Her voice is unmatched by any I’ve heard of late. She brings exceptional strength and vulnerability to this layered character. Christian Michael Camporin, whom I’ve seen twice before (in Appropriate at Westport Country Playhouse and in Room of My Own at Seven Angels Theatre) is pure delight as David and a consummate professional already at his tender age. Sara Kapner as Bella captivates as the eternal optimist who, like Rebecca shows both grit and tenderness. Adam Heller is the ideal and an exceptional Avram, channeling Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof, a role he’s coincidentally also played at Goodspeed and for which he’s won a Connecticut Critics Circle Award.
Emily Zacharias is a brilliant Anna, often delivering zingers and providing some of the production’s comical scenes. Mitch Greeneberg as Jack is spot-on as her often kvetching husband. Nathan Salstone is endearing as Ben and Lori Wilner has more than a few sidesplitting moments as Rachel. Sean MacLauglin has a commanding presence as the Italian interloper Sal, and it’s easy to see why someone may find themselves smitten, despite the cultural differences. David Harris is the man you love to hate as Max, and I also loved his performance in TheaterWorks Hartford’s Next to Normal.
The “quintet” provided great dimension to the production – alternating as the uptown elitists who look down their noses at the greenhorns as well as beleaguered and sometimes aggressive city dwellers. In alphabetical order they are: J.D. Daw (whom I also loved in Next to Normal), Ellie Fishman, Danny Lindgren (also Fight Captain), Sarah Solie, and Jeff Williams. I must also mention the non-appearing swings: Giovanni DiGabrielle and Catalina Gaglioti; and David’s understudy (who did not appear the night we saw Rags), Gordon Beck.
Veteran and one of my personal favorite directors, Rob Ruggiero, did a flawless job with this production and ensured that each part came together in the marvelous whole. I especially liked the use of the revolving stage – and kudos to Michael Schweikardt for its spectacular design. Shout-outs also to Linda Cho for truly exceptional costume design; to John Lasiter for effective accents in lighting design; Luke Cantella for projection design which melded the necessary vestiges of the bygone era into this modern-day presentation. Praise to Mark Adam Rampmeyer for wig and hair design, Ron Piretti for fight direction, Dan DeLange for orchestrations, Jay Hilton for sound design, Ben Furey for dialect coaching, and Parker Esse for choreography, as well as the rest of the production crew.
The impeccable execution of this old and newly reimagined score rests on music direction by Michael O’Flaherty, and musicians: William J. Thomas, Assistant Music Director and Keyboard/Conductor; Sal Ranniello, Percussion; Karin Fagerburg, Violin; Roy Wiseman, Bass; Jeff Carlson, Guitar; Pete Roe, Trumpet; Liz Baker Smith, Reeds; and Julie Ribchinsky, Cello.
Rags is timeless and a story that needs to be told. While I did not see its original version, I can only imagine that this one has done it justice and improved upon it tremendously. Goodspeed has done it again – it’s most certainly earned it’s moniker as “home of the American musical”!