Review: Rags at Goodspeed Musicals by Tara Kennedy

(l. to r.) Samantha Massell, Nathan Salstone, Mitch Greenberg, Sara Kapner, and Emily Zacharias, in ‘Rags;’ photo: Diane Sobolewski.

Rags, a musical originally conceived as a film to follow-up “Fiddler on the Roof,” has returned to Goodspeed Musicals in its latest incarnation. The original musical, with a book by Joseph Stein, music by Charles Strouse, and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, began its troubled journey with a name befitting its original fate; despite a star-studded cast (Judy Kuhn, Lonny Price, Larry Kert, Dick Latessa, Marcia Lewis, and Terrence Mann), it did not do well on Broadway, closing quickly after 4 performances (and 18 previews). But this is a brand-new version of this musical: the insert in the program with the text “Subject to change” gives away that it is still a work-in-progress. This version includes a revised book by David Thompson (Scottsboro Boys, Steer Pier) and new songs by Strouse and Schwartz. And with director Rob Ruggiero at the helm, it promises to be an excellent show, and it does not disappoint.

I haven’t experienced this much emotional investment in a musical theater production since Hamilton. From previous synopses I’ve read, this storyline is vastly improved; earlier versions of the show were too broad and complex. Here, Mr. Thomason’s book is cohesive and concise, with the focus being primarily on one character, sustained by the interweaving of strong, well-developed, supporting characters. The relationships between all the characters are earnest and engaging. The music highlights the overall sentiments of the show – hope, faith, love, joy and sorrow – without taking us out of the moment, meaning there were few “now I am going to sing you a song about that” moments for me.

I will start by saying that I am already inclined to like this show due to its subject matter: life as an immigrant on the Lower East Side. It’s the tale of a young immigrant woman, Rebecca (Samantha Massell) and her son, David (Christian Michael Camporin), who comes to America to escape the horrors of progroms in her native Russia, which took the life of her husband. On the way over to America, she meets Bella (Sara Kapner), who is coming to the New World to meet her father, Avram (Adam Heller) and her aunt, Anna (Emily Zacharias) and uncle, Jack (Mitch Greenberg). Rebecca and David end up staying in the tiny tenement with Bella’s family, helping out with piecework for a dressmaker’s factory. Turns out, Rebecca is skilled with the sewing machine, which is noticed by the dress factory owner, Max Bronfman (David Harris). Another man also has his eyes on Rebecca: a young, handsome union organizer, Sal (Sean MacLaughlin). Romance is in the air for others as well: a young man, Ben (Nathan Salstone), who has eyes for Bella and big dreams in the music business; and a widow, Rachel (Lori Wilner), a skilled saleswoman who takes a shine to Avram. There are triumphs and heartbreaks throughout the show with an ending that demonstrates Rebecca’s strength and determination, and a shift from expected feminine convention.

The performers are all top-notch and deliver an engaging, beautifully-told story. Ms. Massell is fantastic as the heroine, Rebecca; with a beautiful, soaring voice, she is compelling and charming. Mr. Comporin as David has a range of emotions to convey and does a fantastic job doing so. The storyline of Bella and Ben touched me the most; there are moments where I downright sobbed. Ms. Kapner is marvelous as the spitfire Bella and Mr. Salstone is delightful as the charismatic Ben. As Avram, Mr. Heller’s performance is fantastic, providing both levity and tragedy to this tale. “Three Sunny Rooms” that he performs first as a duet with Ms. Wilner (who is brilliant as the brazen, savvy Rachel), then adding Bella and Ben, was one of my favorite numbers in the show. Mr. MacLaughlin is perfect as the rebellious, provocative union organizer, Sal. The chemistry between he and Ms. Massell is deliciously palpable, especially during “Blame it on the Summer Night.” Mr. Harris does an excellent job as the stoic and shrewd businessman, Max Bronfman. He has a fine line to walk as both the love interest for Rebecca and the antagonist of the show, and balances the two marvelously.  Mr. Greenberg is terrific as Jack with his snappy comments that bring humor to the scenes, and Ms. Zacharias is lovely as Anna, the caring, loving aunt, cementing the family together. The five ensemble members, billed as the “quintet,” play numerous characters throughout the show.  I like this twist on the dramatic convention of the enemy being a collective rather than an individual; it is certainly more menacing and foreboding. The quintet portrays the wealthy 1% who talk about the necessary evils of the immigrant population (“Greenhorns”) and then how they are ruining the country (“Take Our Country Back”). Sound familiar?

(l. to r.) Jeff Williams, Sarah Solie, Danny Lindgren, Ellie Fishman and J.D. Daw play the Quintet in ‘Rags;’ photo: Diane Sobolewski.

Mr. Ruggiero is smart to utilize the spaces he has, and staging in the aisles and the balcony gives an immersive effect. This is especially effective in making the audience feel like it is part of the crowd at the rally, for example. Parker Esse’s spirited choreography harkens back to the historical dances of the Old Country. Linda Cho’s costumes – especially the upper-class dresses – will take your breath away. Michael Schweikart brings stunningly detailed realism to the tenement apartment, right down to the reproduction wallpaper that looks remarkably like the wallpaper remnants I saw on the walls of the Tenement Museum in lower Manhattan. Projection designs by Luke Cantarella provide accurate historic backdrops without the need for excessive sets and scene painting, which I find much more compelling. Lighting design by John Lasiter is beautifully done, especially during “Children of the Wind” where the lighting casts silhouettes on the walls of the tenement: a hauntingly wonderful effect.

One of my biggest criticisms is the title of this show. The title doesn’t do it justice, nor does its namesake song. When Rebecca started singing “Rags” at the end of Act One, I was like, “Um, why are these lyrics incredibly awkward?” Ms. Massell sells it like hot cakes, but I find the lyrics and the show’s title do not convey how wonderful this show is.

I think this show is for folks who pine for the more traditional style of musical theater, but still extremely appealing for those who lean toward the less-conventional musical genre (like me). Also, given the current political climate, this is a good reminder that we are a country of immigrants, and our strength is our diversity. Frankly, if your heart doesn’t break at least once during this show, check your pulse: you might be dead.