Carolyn Maitland as Rebecca & Alex Gibson-Giorgio as Sal (centre) in RAGS. Photo: Pamela Raith
Rags, The Musical tells the story of Rebecca and her son David, Russian Jews fleeing the Cossacks, and begins with their arrival on Ellis Island. The show is set in 1910 and seeks to present the tumultuous times experienced by refugees as they seek to discover the American Dream.
Joseph Stein’s book (revised by David Thompson for this production), Stephen Schwartz lyrics and Charles Strouse music would appear to be the perfect combination for success in this show, which is in all but name a sequel to Fiddler on the Roof. However, at the end, despite a truly entertaining evening and some stunning staging and performances there is something lacking. Perhaps for a musical to tick all the boxes the audience need to come out humming a tune.
The opening scene with thirteen suitcases precariously balanced centre stage creates the immediacy of the Jewish people’s plight: the anti-Semitism which has caused generation after generation of Jewish people to gather whatever they can in a suitcase and move on to a new place, make a fresh start. Rebecca, David and her new-found friend Bella arrive in New York full of hope and expectations of a brighter future, but this is not so easy to find. Yes, there are those who are doing well for themselves, but they have changed their name, become people to be feared, are not honest about themselves or honest to those around them. Meanwhile there are the Italians, the Irish and all the other immigrants who have arrived at varying times to start afresh, struggle to make a new life, fight for fairer working conditions and live alongside each other in the melting pot of a big city.
The simplicity of the staging is one of the great joys of this production. Suitcases are moved around to create theatres, boats, market barrows. The back of the stage is a wall of suitcases and in one magical moment a suitcase becomes a Coney Island ride while the strings of lights along the suitcase edges create the impression of a New York skyline. Suitcases open to reveal onions, candle sticks, balloons and a myriad of unexpected delights. Screens and steps are moved around fluidly to give the suggestion of houses, factories, corridors and doorways. Central to many scenes is the sewing machine. With the importance of clothing in the Jewish faith, tailoring was a profession that was respected and provided much needed opportunities when families were forced to uproot and make their living in a new country.
Alongside New York skylines the lighting shifts frequently to create splashes of red, white and blue colour on July 4th, moments of high intensity in the solos, a warmer softer feeling for family scenes and the brightness associated with the younger generations exploration of the city and discovery of their hopes and dreams. Stage left a platform sits in the corner, looming ominously and allowing the bright young sparks of America to look down on the world and despise the arrival of these greenhorns, someone to be tricked or swindled, someone to be despised. The whites and creams of their smart costumes contrast with the browns, blacks and greys of the immigrants, helping to reinforce their differences and the fact that they are always starting off as underdogs wherever they go.
What this show does do exceptionally well is present a Jewish family with all the stereotypical traits that we recognise, not least from shows like Fiddler on the Roof. The nagging wife, who just has the good of the family at heart, the widow looking for a new husband, the father for whom no man will be good enough for his daughter, the grumpy, kind hearted husband who says no, but always changes his mind and says yes to help others. The cast is excellent. The strong core of musicians underscore the show with klezmer music that helps maintain a feeling of Jewish heritage, whilst also bringing in some of the Ragtime that was so popular in the period. In addition those on stage move scenery, play crowd scenes and are one of the key reasons the show runs so smoothly. The leads are all strong, with good singing voices which hold the audience spellbound. Carolyn Maitland as Rebecca belts out her solos with a candor and sincerity that draws the audience along with her story as she learns the value of being true to herself. However, it is the older couples who really steal the show. The bickering between Anna (Debbie Chazen) and Jack (Jeremy Rose) and the humour that develops the relationship between Avram (Dave Willetts) and Rachel (Rachel Izen) are what make the show memorable. The little moments where a gesture, a pause, a smile say more than a thousand words.
Rags, The Musical covers multiple storylines, the romance of Bella and Ben, the love triangle between Rebecca, Bronfman and Sal, the backdrop of the anti-Semitism and labour agitations of 1900s New York, but perhaps this is too many half told stories for two and a half hours of theatre. Nonetheless it is an engaging and thought-provoking evening. In a world where we feel that each new news item seems to reinforce the growing divide between us, much of the story reminds us of our similarities: as you watch the Catholics take communion and the Jews break bread at the Shabbos perhaps we all need to take that moment to remind ourselves that our faiths and customs are not so far apart.
Martha Kirby as Bella & Carolyn Maitland as Rebecca in RAGS. Photo: Pamela Raith