An exceptional “new” musical has opened at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, CT. Playing through December 10, the quintessentially American tale illustrates the struggles, hopes and optimism of immigrants who came to find their dream in the “Brand New World” in the beginning of the 20th Century. As the newcomers disembark from a long ocean crossing in steerage, the main characters, Rebecca Hershkowitz and her son David, along with their new friend Bella sing “If We Never Meet Again” a glorious anthem which sets the tone for the rest of this engaging show.
When the displaced foreigners arrive on Ellis Island, a quintet of exploitive wealthy bigots sneeringly confront the newcomers. They voice their displeasure of the new arrivals in a ragtime ditty “Greenhorns.” This memorable tune, often reprieved, illustrates the difficult future the immigrants will face living eight to a room in squalid tenements while trying to find their place in life on Manhattan’s lower East side.
Although RAGS appeared briefly on Broadway in 1986, the original creators Charles Strouse (music) and Stephen Schwartz (lyrics) have teamed up with writer David Thompson, who has adapted the late Joseph Stein’s book. The result is this uplifting piece that reveals the determination of all those hard-working immigrants who eventually built America and generations later still do – with the promise of a better life.
Rebecca is played and sung magnificently by Samantha Massell*, who brings to the character the strength and fortitude of a widowed young woman alone in a somewhat hostile environment. Rebecca uses her talent for sewing to design and create a new look in women’s fashion – hence the title RAGS. Her fashion sense comes to the attention of factory owner Bronfman (David Harris*) who uses his charms (and lovely tenor voice) to beguilingly exploit the seamstress. Competing for Rebecca’s attention is downstairs neighbor “the Italian” Sal (Sean MacLaughlin*)– whose booming baritone is showcased in the delicious duet “Blame It on The Summer Night” – played out on the tenement rooftop. Through all this turmoil, Rebecca’s young son David (convincingly portrayed by Christian Michael Camporin*) struggles to keep his mother close while trying to keep her suitors at arm’s length.
Rebecca’s friend Bella is a bundle of energy and optimism as played by Sara Kapner* who beautifully duets with Ms. Massell in “Children of The Wind”, and the aforementioned “If We Never Meet Again.” Bella’s song-writing beau Ben is dazzlingly played by show-stopping Nathan Salstone* (“Bella’s Song,” “Yankee Boy”). Mr. Salstone’s character is probably based on the Tin Pan Alley songwriters of the day – Irving Berlin instantly comes to mind.
The brilliant Adam Heller* is perfectly cast as Bella’s father Avram, who is reduced from being a teacher in the Old World to a peddler in the new one. A more experienced street peddler, Rachel, sets her cap on snaring Avram into sharing her “Three Sunny Rooms,” a show stopping lovely, witty, and melodic song which highlights the buoyant spirits of the newcomers to New York. Lori Wilner* delightfully portrays Rachel as a world-wise widow who uses wit and guile to catch Avram’s heart.
In the tenement, struggling to get out as much piece work as possible each day, is Jack (Mitch Greenberg*) and Anna (Emily Zacharias*) who keep the Jewish traditions alive in their crowded apartment while making a new life for themselves surrounded by the chaos of their daily struggle to put challah on the table.
Vocal arranger David Loud beautifully blends the voices of the quintet (J.D.Daw*, Ellie Fishman*, Danny Lindgren*, Sarah Solie* and Jeff Williams*). These talented actors do double duty as immigrants in many scenes, often magically appearing throughout the theater in the balcony, in the aisles, or in front of the first row of the orchestra. This terrific staging technique makes for an even more intimate feel during this poignant musical.
Director Rob Ruggiero has once more worked his magic by helping the actors tell a story that, in the wrong hands, could be overly sentimental. Instead, the joys, hopes, tragedies, social barriers and enthusiasms of the immigrant class in early 1900’s America (and indeed today) come across as “the story of most Americans.” Most of us can go back to old photos of our ancestors who arrived on these shores to see people who were determined to do nothing more than to pursue a new, happy, successful life.
Choreographer Parker Esse has thoughtfully scaled down the usually ebullient dancing on the Goodspeed stage to expertly fit the story – a few rapid explosions of joy by the immigrants, a lively beach-side strut, and a delicate waltz by the moneyed swells. The revolving set by Scenic Designer Michael Schweikardt recreates the crowded, cluttered conditions of a tiny, dark tenement apartment. The actors sometime need to move quickly to keep up the merry-go-round pace of the moveable floor.
Linda Cho has magically opened her sewing basket as Costume Designer for RAGS. Her interpretation of the way each character dressed is a tribute to her talent for authenticity – from the Old World Jewish mode of dress to the elegant fabrics of the high society New Yorkers and the dresses created by Rebecca.
Lighting design by John Lasiter gives the show a bit less of the usual Goodspeed technicolor and more of a mood of the uncertainty of dark times. There are moments of tragedy and sadness that need to be embraced by somber illumination, and these are well executed.
Sound designer and Audio Supervisor Jay Hilton has created amplification that sounds totally natural. When the actors are singing in the aisles, close up, there is not even a hint that their voices are electronically enhanced. Wig and Hair design by Mark Adam Rampmeyer proves once again that each era can be identified by the way both men and women fussed with their hair: upsweeps for the ladies; pomades, and beards for the men were the order of the day in the beginning of the 20th Century.
In addition to the swing actors (Catalina Gaglioti, Giovanni DiGabriele and understudy for David, Gordon Beck) there is one other prominent addition to the Goodspeed stage – the Projection Design by Luke Cantarella. From the spirited opening Prologue to the Worker’s Strike to the Finale, the plight of the immigrants is played out in brilliantly projected black and white images – all authentic photos, all heartbreaking or uplifting. The finale image is a piece of theatrical magic.
Music Director Michael O’Flaherty is in his 26th season as Goodspeed’s Resident Music Director, and in this show he and orchestrator Dan DeLange pull all the stops with a plethora of musical idioms to bring this story of struggle and triumph brilliantly to life. (O’Flaherty has written music and lyrics for A Connecticut Christmas Carol which will be produced at Goodspeed’s nearby Theatre Nov. 17- Dec. 24th).
Someone recently told us that they thought that RAGS is an “important” musical for our times. Albeit in total agreement, it’s nonetheless an exhilarating theater experience, peppered with all the ups and downs of the human experience, surrounded by beautiful music, wit, and laughs that come in just the right places. One of the “must see” shows of the season.
RAGS will run until December 10, 2017. Curtain times are Wednesday at 2:00p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.).
Tickets are available through the Box Office (860 873 -8668), open seven days a week, or online at goodspeed.org. For show highlights, exclusive photos, special events and more, visit www. goodspeed.org or Facebook, Twitter @goodspeedmusicl, Instagram and YouTube.