How do you respond to a musical that obviously has its heart in the right place, has a great cast and impressive production values? Perhaps not with the shrug I offered it as the rest of the opening night audience leapt to its feet in approbation. I stood also, if only to flex my knees. Obviously, there was a disconnect here, but as I watched Rags unfold at Goodspeed Musicals, I often found myself thinking I was being preached to rather than being entertained, and that Joseph Stein (book – revised by David Thompson) and Stephen Schwartz (lyrics) were trying just a bit too hard to strum the heart strings (i.e., manipulate), and that Charles Strouse’s music just sounded all of a piece. So, sue me.
There’s no denying that the staging of Rags, under the capable direction of Rob Ruggiero, is up to Goodspeed’s high standards, yet the material simply does not allow the Goodspeed folks to strut their stuff. By that I mean there are no big production numbers that blow you away, no pop and sizzle, and you certainly don’t come away whistling any tunes.
For my money (of course, I didn’t pay for the tickets), what we have in Rags is essentially Ragtime meets Fiddler on the Roof, although it has neither the depth nor the breadth of either show. What it does have is a marvelous cast, headed by the impressive, multi-talented Samantha Massell as Rebecca, supported by a sprightly and engaging Sara Kapner as Bella. Their two characters meet on a boat that is headed for New York harbor, for they are refugees fleeing the numerous pogroms that occurred in middle Europe in the early twentieth century.
When they arrive at Ellis Island, Rebecca doesn’t have the $20 to pay for entry into the country, but Bella urges her father, Avram (Adam Heller) to vouch for Rebecca and her son, David (Christian Michael Camporin). They all soon find themselves ensconced in the cramped rooms of a Lower East Side tenement building, sheltered by Anna (Emily Zacharias) and Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), who do garment piecework for Max Bronfman (David Harris), purveyor of dresses to the up-town crowd, personified by the snobbish Quintet (J. D. Shaw, Ellie Fishman, Danny Lindgren, Sarah Solie and Jeff Williams).
The show deals with the inherent dislike and fear of immigrants that seems to be woven into the American character (excuse me, but is that Donald Trump as Lady Liberty defying immigrant entry, compliments of projections by Luke Cantarella?). There’s also the never-ending class warfare pitting workers against the owners of the means and methods of production, flavored by a lot of scenes that evoke Jewish culture, with a bit of Catholicism thrown in for good measure via the Italians and Irish who got “here” first…and, of course, Rebecca must fall in love with someone not of her faith: Sal (Sean MacLaughlin), a rabble-rousing Italian.
It’s engaging material, and I wanted to care for the characters, but I just couldn’t, mainly because they mostly seem to be stereotypes and also because throughout the evening I kept on hearing and seeing echoes of other musicals. I know, they say there’s nothing new under the sun, but Rags wears its derivations on its ragged sleeve and for me that was off-putting.
Billed as “An American Musical” (vs. what – a Serbro-Croation musical?), Rags does have its moments. The “Shabbos / Latin Mass” scene (Jewish and Catholic rites counterbalanced) is very effective, the “Children of the Wind” theme blended with Cantarella’s projections is, yes, haunting, and as reprised by Massell at the end of the show, certainly rates show-stopper status, and “Three Sunny Rooms,” featuring a dual love interest is sweet and nicely staged. So why am I kvetching? Perhaps because Rags isn’t Fiddler on the Roof or Ragtime. Most will say “That’s not fair!” and perhaps it isn’t, but the echoes compel comparison.
Rags runs through December 10. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.