A musical melting pot returns

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday April 12, 2017
Share this Post:

Rags is a musical that has been rising from the ashes ever since its quick Broadway death in 1986, and TheatreWorks, which first helped rekindle the fire with a small production in 1989, has returned to a much-revised version for a full-scale edition at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. It's an impressive rendering of what has become an emotionally powerful musical that was chosen for this TheatreWorks season very much with current events in mind.

There probably was never a worse year on Broadway than 1986 for made-in-America musical theater. Not a single new American musical played for more than a few weeks, most closing much more quickly than that. It seemed that Rags' distinguishing historical asterisk might have been the impassioned cast's impromptu decision to rally audiences from the Saturday matinee to join them in a march down to the half-priced ticket booth in Times Square in a fight to keep the show open. The show nevertheless closed that night after four official performances and six years of gestation. But the critics who didn't provide commercially helpful reviews were not dismissive or hostile, and Rags never got lost in the forgotten file of its fellow failures of that season.

The musical about the Jewish immigrant experience in the early part of the 20th century �" a kind of follow-up to Fiddler on the Roof, which also had a book by Joseph Stein �" has been revised and revived at regular intervals over the years to increasing appreciation. In the years since Artistic Director Robert Kelley staged that chamber-sized version for the Silicon Valley theater in 1989, the musical has been under construction. Several of its original creators have worked to focus what had been a sprawling story, and what is likely now the definitive version is receiving a full-scale rendering that Kelley has guided with a sure directorial hand and a top-notch cast.

Rags opens on Ellis Island as a group of frightened and confused Russian Jewish immigrants is trying to navigate a cold bureaucratic welcome before reconnecting with relatives who are required sponsors for newcomers. Rebecca Hershkowitz and her 10-year-old son seem stranded on the dock, her husband who made the move five years before nowhere in sight. A young woman who befriended Rebecca on board convinces her father to pose as her uncle, offering her and her boy a place to stay until she can locate her husband.

The melting-pot metaphor of America is represented in the music provided by Charles Strouse, whose credits stretch from Bye Bye Birdie to Annie. Old and New World sounds come together, often creating a kind of klezmer ragtime for the more upbeat numbers. There are some typical Broadway-style novelty tunes, but because opera star Teresa Stratas was cast as Rebecca, that character's songs can soar through multiple registers of operatic grandeur. And this production has Kyra Miller as Rebecca, who can take us there vocally, and also deliver the emotional unpinning of this character whose strength and independence grow through a barrage of new experiences, and who believably connects with the talented young Jonah Broscow as her son.

Another major dramatic arc has been built around Bella, the young woman who befriended Rebecca and is struggling to express herself under the roof of her overly protective father (well-played by Donald Corren, who has a perhaps too-cute duet with a widowed pushcart merchant played with wise humor by Darlene Popovic). Julie Benko combines both warmth and subtle signs of incipient rebellion in Bella, and also powerfully delivers the show's bitter title song (lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz).

Both Rebecca and Bella have romantic interests that are forbidden for different reasons. Danny Rothman plays a union organizer with steely resolve who tries to recruit, then falls in love with Rebecca �" married, but still with no husband in sight. For Bella, it's a fellow passenger from the boat, played by the spirited Travis Leland, who has taken on the gung-ho spirit of American enterprise, an attitude that her traditionalist father can't abide. In one of the show's still troublesome plot holes, Rebecca's husband (Noel Anthony) appears as if dropped from a cloud to complicate her life, both because of her love for Saul and because of his corrupt political ambitions that require de-Semiticification.

Fumiko Bielefeldt's array of period costumes adds to the production's atmosphere, and Joe Ragey's multi-tiered set can be rearranged into numerous locales, including a final scene that this production uses to combine past and present ports of immigration for an effective contemporary statement. Musical director William Liberatore is in the pit bringing a full sound from a nine-piece orchestra that helps give the worthy Rags a chance to sing once more.


Rags will run through April 30 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $35-$86. Call (650) 462-1960 or go to theatreworks.org.