Call “Rags” a “revisal,” not a “revival.” The current Goodspeed production is the umpteenth version of the Charles Strouse / Stephen Schwartz / Joseph Stein musical that had a brief run on Broadway (four performances) back in 1968. Keeping most of the original score but dramatically altering the book, David Thompson re-shaped the story of immigrants trying to make it in America around the turn of the last century. By paring everything down and concentrating on one family, Thompson gains focus but loses a sense of outside threat.
An amalgam of “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Ragtime,” both of which were denser and more dangerous, “Rags” manages to be interesting without being particularly moving. Our heroine, Rebecca Hershkowitz, may be the main character, but she’s not the central one, not the protagonist whose actions drive the plot. “Rags” goes off in different directions.
The show wants to tug at the heartstrings while detailing the plights of immigrants, the championing of the independent woman, clashes between classes and religions, tugs of war between management and labor and the effects of prejudice. Its beating heart rests not in personal tsuris but in socialist conflicts. The American Dream becomes the American Nightmare of sweatshops, close-quartered tenement living, exploitation and bigotry.
Rebecca arrives at Ellis Island with son, David. Having bonded with Bella Cohen on the ship that crossed from Europe to America, and not being met at the dock, she temporarily moves in with Bella’s family – father Avram, his brother Jack and Jack’s wife, Anna. A whiz at sewing, Rebecca brings prosperity to the family’s piecework business of making dresses to be sold by dandyish uptown entrepreneur Max Bronfman (a German not Polish Jew, he insists) whose customers are wealthy snobs.
Soon, Rebecca’s romantically torn between Bronfman and an Italian neighbor, Sal Russo, a union agitator, cementing the conflict between management and labor. Fighting for her fair share of compensation for the beautiful dresses she’s designed and made, at last Rebecca begins to find her own voice.
Throughout, uptown bourgeoisie vilify greenhorn immigrants who would besmirch the country. Throw in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers, an eviction and a labor strike. Add two side romances: Bella is in love with Ben, the eager shlepper who wants to write songs (Irving Berlin?). Avram is wooed by a fellow peddler, Rachel, climaxing in a show-stopping “Three Sunny Rooms.”
Strouse’s music is tuneful, while Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics are germane to story and characters. Especially resonant are “Children of the Wind” (“We’re children of the wind / blown across the earth”), the rousing title number, the evocative pairing of “Shabbos” and “Latin Mass.”
The versatile Samantha Massell is a vivid Rebecca, indignant when provoked, warmly maternal and triumphantly defiant. Sara Kapner is a spirited Bella and Adam Heller a poignant Avram, bowed down in sorrow, yet a shlemiel in scenes with the delightful Lori Wilner’s yearning Rachel.
It’s an all-around notable cast: Christian Michael Camporin’s clear-voiced David, Emily Zacharias’ caring Anna, Mitch Greenberg’s bewildered Jack. Nathan Salstone nails Ben, Bella’s tragic / comic suitor, David Harris is suave as Bronfman and Sean MacLaughlin is an heroic, sincere, soaring Sal. Kudos also to J. D. Daw, Ellie Fishman, Danny Lindgren, Sarah Solie and Jeff Williams who do double duty as uptown capitalists and downtown workers.
As superbly directed by Rob Ruggiero, even the theater aisles are used to involve the audience. Michael Schweikardt’s dexterous turntable scenic design, which depicts various rooms in the apartment, is atmospheric, lit by John Lasiter’s sepia tones. Linda Cho’s costumes evoke period and class, while dialect coach Ben Furey deserves mention, as does the always brilliant music direction by Michael O’Flaherty. Parker Esse’s choreography is effectively ethnic.
Watching this “Rags” is double-edged. There’s the show with its erratic plot, excellent performances, well-paced direction and enticing design. And then there’s the reality of our current nativist government that does its best to extinguish the lamp that the Statue of Liberty raises in “world-wide welcome . . . beside the golden door” of America. But that’s another story.