Rags – Review by Bonnie Goldberg

Makeovers are a creative change in hair color, clothing styles, cosmetic surgery, weight reduction, home renovations and new furniture and any number of innovative improvements to a body or a place. What about a total do-over to a musical, one that had the potential to be great but never quite achieved it. Think a jello mold with tasty ingredients that never quite gels. The Goodspeed has set about accepting this challenge with the musical”Rags,” giving it a new look and a fresh sound thanks to the inspiration of Executive Director Michael Gennaro and it is being unveiled in all its emotional and heartfelt form until Sunday, December 10.

A team has been working for a year, including the original composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, with the book that was written by Joe Stein, and newcomers to the project Rob Ruggiero as director, revised book by David Thompson, costumes by Linda Cho, choreographer Parker Esse, revolving tenement set designed by Michael Schweikardt, projections by Luke Cantarella and vocal arrangements by David Loud, all collaborating to tell a story of the fabric of America.

Samantha Massell is the brave and adventurous Rebecca Hershkowitz who flees from the Russian pogroms, with her son David, a spunky Christian Michael Camporin, after the death of her husband, to seek a new life of freedom. With barely more than a thimble and a suitcase full of dreams, the pair settle in the Lower East Side of New York, like so many immigrants before them. Through the kindness of her friend Bella, an optimistic Sara Kapner, and Bella’s father Avram, a concerned Adam Heller, her aunt and uncle (Emily Zacharias and Mitch Greenberg), the newcomers are welcomed into the sewing business that is run out of their tiny apartment. Even David has a job.

Disappointments often dispel dreams as they face discrimination, have to fight their boss Max, a conniving David Harris, for better wages and listen to the encouragement of their neighbor Sal, a persuasive Sean McLaughlin, that they need to join a union and fight to be treated fairly. Their struggle to march for bread and freedom has serious consequences on all of their lives as they make choices, planting roots and pursuing promises.

Rebecca’s skills as a seamstress provide her with the potential to move uptown, out of the ghetto, and allow her the chance for a dress shop of her own. “Rags” is full of human moments, both humor and tragedy, and music, jazz, klezmer and ragtime, that shines through the darkest clouds. Helping to cast rays of sunshine into their lives are the wannabe song writer Ben, an enterprising Nathan Salstone, and Avram’s peddler friend who seeks to be more to him, Rachel, a helpful Lori Wilner. Director Rob Ruggiero has crafted a heartwarming visitation to the past that will ring true no matter what your ethnic background.

For tickets ($29 and up), call The Goodspeed on the Connecticut River in East Haddam at 860-873-8668 or online at www.goodspeed.org. Performances are Wednesday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m, Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. with select shows at 6:30 p.m.

Think of “Rags” as an extension of Joe Stein’s wonderful “Fiddler on the Roof,” as if citizens of Anatevka pursued their dreams of a better life on America’s golden shores.