It opened on Broadway in 1986 and, after dismal reviews, ran a total of 18 previews and four performances. It was “Rags” and featured a score with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked”) and music by Charles Strouse (“Annie”) with a company of actors that included Judy Kuhn, Larry Kert and Lonny Price. It was directed by Gene Saks with choreography by Ron Field. Lots of talent was evident onstage and off for “Rags”, a musical about Ellis Island immigrants, and it still failed. Now this troubled musical has been given new life with a revised and streamlined book by David Thompson and direction by Rob Ruggiero. Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam is the place where the new “Rags” is now singing and it’s nice to report that it is in very good voice.
Based on the original book by Joseph Stein, “Rags” has apparently narrowed its focus in the storytelling as compared with the 1986 original whose large cast resulted in multiple stories and confusion. With Thompson’s revised book, the musical now concentrates on Jewish single mother Rebecca (Samantha Massell), her son, David (Christian Michael Camporin) and Bella (Sara Kapner), a fellow immigrant Rebecca met on the voyage and whose family on New York’s Lower East Side agrees to take them in. As Rebecca’s gifts as a dressmaker rise, she is pursued by two men: Sal (Sean MacLaughlin), an Italian labor leader who lives downstairs and Max (David Harris), an upwardly mobile businessman anxious to exploit Rebecca’s talents.
There’s not a whole lot of originality in “Rags” which recalls both “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Ragtime” but never reaches the heights of those acclaimed musicals. It follows a fairly predictable course and can seem preachy about its immigration themes at times. Still, at Goodspeed, director Rob Ruggiero has led a superb company of actors over the bumps delivering emotional and heartfelt entertainment that now seems even timelier.
Massell is a lovely heroine whose onstage relationship with young Camporin is both practical and warmly maternal. She also sings the musical’s best songs (“Children of the Wind”, “Rags”) with melodic brilliance. Kapner lends able support as the ill-fated Bella while MacLaughlin exudes masculine charisma and impressive vocal chops as a potential love interest for Rebecca. In other roles Adam Heller (wonderful as Tevye in Goodspeed’s previous “Fiddler on the Roof”) and Lori Wilner are a delight as an older couple finding romance in times of duress.
Michael Schweikardt’s scenery doesn’t always seem easy for the cast to navigate, but Linda Cho’s costuming works just fine as does John Lasiter’s lighting. It all contributes, under Mr. Ruggiero’s sympathetic direction, to a rousing, inspirational finale that will not be spoiled here. Suffice it to say, it speaks to this country’s immigration conversation and should be required viewing for the current resident of the White House.
“Rags” continues at Goodspeed Musicals through December 10. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.