Samantha Massell, Christian Michael Camporin; photo: Diane Sobolewski
Just you wait, little lady, little immigrant. The Cossacks may be stuck back in Danzig but their twin brothers reign in lower New York at the turn of the last century. In Rags the time is somewhere between April 1910 and September 1911. Pogroms and ghettos dot the lower east side; it is suicde to invade the Italians and Irish communities if you are Jewish and an immigrant. People are trapped in their tenements dealing mostly with their own folks, with the exception of the Sabbath Goy who comes to your apartment before sundown on Shabbos to light candles, turn on the gas in the stove and move on to his next client, collecting a few pennies at each stop for his trouble. Immigrants sleep on sewing machines, or on the floor, just to have a place to sleep.
Into this environment emerge two young women, one a mother, one a virgin. Just off the boat and already living the immigrant lie, they move in with one of their fathers: Bella's father Avram who is already imposing on his sister's husband, Jack, for work, food and a place to live. Against his will Jack, once Jacob, takes in everyone including a young song writer who can't make a dime. Bella's new friend, Rebecca, is a fine-finish sewer who is looking for her missing husband, nursing their child, and trying not to become interested in a neighbor...that's the new world for you...who just happens to be Irish, the Goy.
What happens to Rebecca, and through her to everyone else, is the story of this 1986 musical. When it opened in August, to much fanfare, it played a total of four performances and closed. Metropolitan Opera star Teresa Stratas was making her Broadway debut but she didn't have time to unpack before she had to leave the building. Larry Kert, Judy Kuhn, Joanna Glushak, Dick Latessa, Rex Everhart, Evalyn Baron, Michael Davis and a host of others with enormous talent couldn't save the show from closing. A later CD of the show offers some explanation: the songs don't hold your heart or your soul, or even your ear and your memory. Charles Strouse of Bye, Bye Birdie, Applause, and Annie wrote some extraordinary pieces of music for this new show, but somehow not one song would engage the mind. So, as they say in the ghetto, it must have been his fault.
Stephen Schwartz, straight from Pippin and Godspell didn't offer up a single lyric you could quote from. It must have been his fault. There there was Joseph Stein who wrote Fiddler On the Roof, Enter Laughing and King of Hearts; shouldn't his characters and his story have depth and meaning and save the day? Nope, it didn't work. The show was a colossal financial failure and didn't leave behind even one tear dripping down a moist cheek.
So now David Thompson has reconstructed the book for the show based on his belief in Stein and his wonderful way with characters and Stephen Schwartz has rewritten some lyrics and reshaped the way the songs play out - a more traditional route for the most part and even Charles Strouse has supplied a few new notes. And the wonderful people at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Connecticut have put the show back up on its feet, all under the supervision of the very talented director Rob Ruggiero. But when the curtain comes down two plus hours later the same ending happens, not the story ending, but the show's ending. It still doesn't really work.
This is the truth in spite of a wonderfully talented company who keep the show alive and moving and telling its heartfelt story during a time when immigrants are being hunted and treated like bad slave children in this country. The relevance of this show can not escape notice. It is on its feet again at a time when so many "Greenhorns" are in evidence once again, like they were in 1910. "Greenhorns" is the theme song of The Quintet, five very talented singers who move around like snobs and behave like insolent children at a picnic where there are bugs. They are J.D. Daw, Ellie Fishman, Danny Lindgren, Sarah Solie, and Jeff Williams and they are superb.
The young lovers in this show are Bella Cohen and Ben Levitowitz played by Sara Kapner and Nathan Salstone. Bella is one of those immigrants actively pursuing a better life and being constantly disappointed while Ben is an incipient song-writer whose new music sounds just like what Irving Berlin was writing in that period. In fact, you could look at him as actually being Irving Berlin. In part that is the white ragtime that Strouse wrote for this show. He gives that faux-rag rhythm to Ben's songs in particular and it works nicely. You just don't come out humming "Ben's" songs, but you might come out humming his role's model. This couple of performers bring whatever charm there is to the show and when things go wrong for them, through a historic reality, the show loses not just a character but a reason for being.
And then there's Sean MacLaughlin as Sal Russo, the union organizer and Sabbath Goy, and Max Bronfman, the dressmaker who wants to make Rebecca into a star in the business. This romantic and intellectual rivalry is at the very core of the show and therefore is also at the core, or heart, of the matter. Max is handsome, rich, tuneless with no solo song to sing which pretty much tells you that he stands not a chance in the romance department. Sal is foreign, sensual, powerful and a lyric baritone with some of the best music in the show, so of course he's the winner of the lady's hand. . .or is he? Without a song, or with a song, this show leaves us aching for a romantic ending. In this show, instead, we get a polemic, a movement, a restart without a visible string to hold on to.
Sean MacLaughlin, Samantha Massell; photo: Diane Sobolewski
The Quintet: Jeff Williams, Sarah Solie, Danny Lindgren, Ellie Fishman, J.D. Daw; photo: Diane Sobolewski
But this show is filled with so much talent you could bust a gut applauding for them. Avram is played by Adam Heller who is remarkable, particularly in his fit of silent grief. Rebecca's son David is the extremely engaging and talented Christian Michael Camporin. Rachel Brodsky, a street peddlar, is played with so much charm and joy by Lori Wilner. Emily Zacharias is the wife of Jack, or Jacob, and the sister of Avram and playing to both of these men seemingly brings out the most finessed performance of the lot. Every one of them is a gem working as hard as they can to make it all seem effortless.
As it did with Teresa Stratas in 1986, this show rides hard on the shoulders of its leading lady, Rebecca, played by Samantha Massell. This actress's last name, in Yiddish, means luck and what she never had in reality is the luck to sing that one hit song, that hitmaker that gives you a highpoint in a career. She has some exotic songs to warble, If We Never Meet Again, Wanting, Children of the Wind, but not one of them grabs the heart, the emotional support system that gets you crying and still longing for an encore. Strouse has found all of the musical criteria of the period and he has wielded them with skill and power, but he has missed an ingredient so necessary to a show working correctly. I wish I could tell him what to do, but he has done it all just right. It just doesn't appeal.
The show is gorgeous to watch. Linda Cho's costumes are perfect and the turntable set designed by Michael Schweikardt never missed a beat, though it was used too often I think. John Lasiter's lighting shows us the cruelty of city light even way back then. Luke Cantarella's work overseeing the production is perfect. Rob Ruggiero knows how to work with this material and the effect of his direction is finely presented characters in seemingly genuine relationships. Perhaps, though, it is best summed up by the Schwartz lyric for the title song: "Don't tell me how it all belongs to me. . .let me tell you what I see: Rags. . .Rags. . ." That is truly what keeps this show from being the show it might have been. We are dominated, the characters are dominated, the whole production is dominated by rags, bits and pieces torn from other things, better things. It's great, as a theater mavin, to have a chance to see what this show is made of. I just wish it wasn't rags.
Samantha Massell, David Harris; photo: Diane Sobolewski
Rags plays at Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT through December 10. For information and tickets go to goodspeed.org or call the box office at 860-873-8668.