Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review of "Rags"

The immigrant experience comes forcefully alive the in the heavily reworked, mostly successful production of the musical Rags, playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through December 10th.  The original 1987 Broadway production is one of the biggest flops in musical theater history, closing after a mere four performances.  The main culprit was the book by Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof), which was hard to follow with too many subplots and a lack of a compelling dramatic arc.  In the Goodspeed version, the original narrative has been revamped to make it easier to follow.  While improved, with more balanced story telling, there is still a lot for the audience to digest.
It’s a “Brand New World” for Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell) and her son David (Christian Michael Camporin) in Goodspeed Musicals’ Rags, now playing at The Goodspeed through December 10.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The plot centers on Rebecca, her son David, and a friend Bella as they head to the new world.  Upon arriving at Ellis Island they are met by Bella’s father, Avram, and then taken to the cramped apartment of Anna and Jack Blumberg, Avram’s brother and sister-in-law.  Here, they eke out a living hand stitching dresses for the mogul Max Bronfman, who also has an eye for the captivating Rebecca.  Helping out the family is Ben, a young man trying to court Bella under her father’s disapproving eyes. Completing, and complicating, the picture is Sal, an Italian immigrant concerned with rallying the “Greenhorns” for better pay and working conditions.  The new arrivals begin to feel at home as dreams of a better life take hold, until a cataclysmic event changes lives forever.
“Meet an Italian” Sean MacLaughlin as Sal with Christian Michael Camporin and Mitch Greenberg (seated), Samantha Massell and Adam Heller in Goodspeed Musicals’ Rags, now playing at The Goodspeed through December 10.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The revised book by David Thompson advances smoothly and naturally.  He has reworked plot lines, reconfigured some player’s roles, and added additional characters.  There are still too many plot lines but, overall, there is a pleasing, down-to-earth feel to the story.  The structure of the show also puts a spotlight on the plight of the recent arrivals, their struggle to assimilate, and the scorn and disdain they experience from the populace.  This aspect of the show, sadly, has a present-day feel to it.  

The songs, with music by Charles Strouse (Bye Bye Birdie, Applause, Annie) and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked), is the strongest element of the show.  There are numerous musical styles incorporated into the beautiful and melodic score.  Many of the compositions are infused with undertones of Klezmeir music.  The numbers, which also includes Broadway styled standards, are impassioned and powerful and demonstrate what musical theater veterans can bring a production.
“And all who could not make this journey: we’re alive here…and we’ll thrive here” Samantha Massell in  Goodspeed Musicals’ Rags, now playing at The Goodspeed through December 10.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The cast is led by Samantha Massell as Rebecca Hershowitz.  She exudes the fervor and excitement of entering immigrants.  The actress possesses an exquisite voice and brings a strong-minded independence, sobering genuineness, and courage to the role. Sean MacLaughlin’s Sal Russo is strong and passionate as he rallies for worker rights.  He brings a compassionate zeal to the role while, at the same time, attempts to woo Ms. Massell’s character. Sara Kapner as the fiery Bella Cohen and Nathan Salstone as Ben Levitowitz, an Irving Berlin styled songwriter, are delightful as the secondary comic, yet star-crossed couple.  David Harris, a frequent performer on Connecticut stages, gives an aristocratic affection to the character of Max Bronfman, a dress manufacturing mogul with salacious and dishonest intents.  Adam Heller, a past Connecticut Critic Circle winner for his role as Teyve in Goodspeed’s Fiddler on the Roof, once again shows his pious nature and comic gifts as the overly protective father, Avram.  His devastating silence near the musical’s end speaks volumes. Emily Zacharias is suitably mother as Anna Blumberg and Mitch Greenberg injects comedic bon mots as husband Jack Blumberg.  Lori Wilner is endearing as Rachel Brodsy, Avram’s soon-to-be love interest and Michael Camporin is effective as tween David Hershowitz.
“I want to be a Yankee Boy” Nathan Salstone (Ben) with Sara Kapner (Bella), Christian Michael Camporin (David) and the cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Rags, now playing at The Goodspeed through December 10.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Director Rob Ruggiero, who has helmed many first-rate productions at Goodspeed over the years, once again shows his flair for the musical theater form.  The show pulsates with the rhythms of the New World.  There is an easy flow to the progression of scenes.  With multiple threads to the story, he provides the supporting characters enough time on stage to develop their portrayals. Ruggiero has not totally solved the problems inherent in the book of the show, but he has worked through the problem with skillful pacing and eliciting impressive performances from his acting troupe.

Scenic Designer Michael Schweikardt’s set keeps with the unpretentious and humble times of the era, including the confined tenement apartment and street life of Orchard Street. 
Jeff Williams, Sarah Solie, Danny Lindgren, Ellie Fishman and J.D. Daw play the Quintet in Goodspeed Musicals’ Rags, now playing at The Goodspeed through December 10.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Costume Designer Linda Cho has crafted a superb array of outfits.  They run the gamut from simple clothing one would see on the Lower Eastside of New York City during the early 20th Century to luscious high society gowns.

Rags, a rarely seen musical being given a gratifying and worthy production through December 10th.

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