When the first version of “Rags” opened on Broadway in 1986, it had a short life and a quick death. It was meant to be something of an extension to the much-loved “Fiddler on the Roof,” telling the stories of how the exiled Jewish community of Anatevka came to new homes in America.
The very-much-revised musical playing at Goodspeed focuses on the journey of Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell), whose husband has been killed in a pogrom, leaving her as the single parent of a scared, neurotic boy, David (Christian Camporin). Although they are on a ship headed for New York, Rebecca does not have the requisite $20 entrance fee required by American Customs. About to be separated from David on Ellis Island, she persuades Avram Cohen (Adam Heller), the father of her shipmate, Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner) to pretend to be her relative [“Uncle Mordecai – it’s me, Rebecca”] and in effect to sponsor them. Although there is no room for them in the apartment where Avram lives, he takes them ‘home’ to a place in a tenement on the lower East Side.
Just so we are aware that immigrants were considered a problem for the upper crust then, as now, a posh quintet quickly sings to the audience about the difference between themselves and the greenhorns downtown. But Bella and Avram, and David and Rebecca, sing instead about their excitement to be part of this brave new world.
In the apartment, which is a little sewing factory, turning out dresses by the piece, Bella and Rebecca join Jack (Mitch Greenberg) and Anna, Avram’s sister (Emily Zacharias) in cutting and sewing, while David learns how to be a runner from Ben (Nathan Salstone). Ben immediately likes Bella. And when Friday night comes, a lovely setting of the Sabbath Meal is aided by the appearance of Sal (Sean MacLaughlin). Sal is an Italian and Roman Catholic. But he is a neighbor who drops in every Friday to adjust the lamp (forbidden ‘work’ on Shabbat) for the family and share the meal. He quickly takes a shine to Rebecca, and just as quickly, David takes a shine to Sal. Rebecca, however, holds back. Sal is from a different religion, and is a union organizer. The boss from the office that markets the dresses they are making, Max Bronfman (David Harris), also is courting Rebecca, with a promise that he could help her open a shop uptown. Max is a German Jew – he looks down on the Russian immigrants just as do the members of the Quintet. Rebecca would like to accept Max’ offer. David really dislikes him.
There are rough moments in the story. David gets beat up one night by hooligans in a different part of town, and when Rebecca and Bella set out to deliver a special dress to a customer uptown, they also get set upon by thugs, and escape, but with bruises. Ben, who also plays a great piano, and Bella are committed to each other, but when Bella takes a job sewing in a factory, a wicked explosion demolishes it and Bella is killed.
It is easy to connect some of the story to actual bits of the historic assimilation of the Russian Jewish community. Ben could be a type for Irving Berlin. Bella could have been killed in the Triangle Shirt Factory (March 25, 1911). The tenement is sold, and its inhabitants must travel on. Whether these connections impose a burden on the new version of “RAGS” is yet to be seen.
The musical ends with Rebecca discovering that Max has not been quite transparent when he told her they would be partners in every way. Feeling the impact of losing Bella, Rebecca rejects Max and stands firmly with Sal as he leads a strike and protest against exploitation of the workers, but she does not choose to stay with him and sets off to open a shop for herself (inheriting Jack’s sewing machine as he and Anna move on to Chicago), singing with David of hope and the fulfilment of a dream.
The production could not possible be more eloquent. Each of the singers and the ensemble are superb in their roles. The set, the lighting, the sound, the magnificent costumes, leave no doubt that hard and rich work have combined, under the careful direction of Rob Ruggiero, working with the estate of Joseph Stein, and Charles Strouse, and Stephen Schwartz, and David Thompson.
See and love it while you have the chance. Tickets and information at www.goodspeed.org, or call the box office at 860-873-8668.
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre November 16, 2017