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Review: ‘Rags’ at Lyric Stage

by Jerome Weeks 4 Nov 2011 12:56 PM

The musical Rags has a gorgeous score with a big story: the wave of desperate Jewish immigrants coming to New York around 1910. There are big Broadway names (Charles Strouse of Annie, Joseph Stein of Fiddler, and the Lyric Stage show has big voices. Too bad the results feel … small.


  • The Dallas Morning News review

Lyric Stage happened to open Rags on the night of  the 125th anniversary of the commemoration of the Statue of Liberty. It was fitting: The big green lady figures prominently in the opening scenes of this Broadway musical — as tired and poor Eastern European Jewish immigrants huddle together on Ellis Island.  But this year, 2011, is also the centenary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire — up to that time, the worst industrial disaster in American history. Most of the 146 garment workers who plunged to their deaths or died trapped on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the New York City building  — the owners had locked the doors — were young women, recent Jewish and Italian immigrants.

That disaster figures in Rags, and those are the two sides of America typified in the show: the icon of hope and opportunity set against our history of prejudice and exploiting both immigrants and the working poor. Rebecca (Amanda Passanante) arrives with her young son, David (Chet Monday) — following her husband (Shane Peterman) who emigrated two years before. But instead of her husband, she’s met by cheerfully cynical hustlers looking for cheap labor — singing, appropriately enough, a rag.

Song: “Greenhorns”

Another load of greenhorns

Fresh off the boat

Another wave of refugees

To build the mills and factories

A little grist — for the capitalist system

It’s a bunch of greaseballs

Greasing the wheels,

A little oil for the machine.

Greenhorns – let ‘em come –

If we can get ‘em while they’re green

Composer Charles Strouse, creator of Annie and Bye Bye Birdie, has stuffed the show with period ragtimes, lively klezmer tunes, even lush, bluesier numbers. Much like his score for It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s … Superman, it’s the musical treasures in Rags that have kept this show alive after its ignominious, four-performance run on Broadway in 1986. Rags is just the sort of forgotten or under-appreciated show that Lyric Stage producer Stephen Jones, as part of his mission, dusts off and revives — with the benefit of a full, 35-piece orchestra.

Strouse (who was present opening night) wrote the show with lyricist Stephen Schwartz (Wicked) and the late Joseph Stein, bookwriter for Fiddler on the Roof. Apparently, they were shooting for an epic treatment of  assimilation, immigration, labor relations, the entire turn-of-the-century New World experience — from a Jewish perspective.

But in following the fates of several families, the original show proved unwieldy; it lacked narrative focus. Ever since, through various revivals, the creative team has trimmed it down to just the story of Rebecca and the family that befriends her — a crusty, Old World father (Jackie Kemp) and his daughter Bella (Kristin Dausch). After Stein’s death last year, Strouse has said, they’ve continued to work on it, hoping to make Rags Stein’s last legacy.

Sadly or ironically, it’s Stein’s book that continues to cripple the show. The Lyric Stage production, directed by Cheryl Denson, can’t be faulted for singing talent. As the smart, sardonic union organizer who becomes romantically involved with Rebecca, Brian Hathaway has a change-of-pace role, and he makes a strong impression in it, as does Dausch as the blossomingly independent Bella. But it’s Passanante  who’s the standout, with her sharp, operatic voice — as can be heard on “Blame It On the Summer Night,” one of Strouse’s lovely, more Gershwin-like songs:

I’ve got to stop this

I’ve never felt so giddy

Why are the stars so bright?

In the days I wonder

And I blame it on

The summer night

But the performances aren’t transformative: The characters and their plights feel unshakably generic (the somewhat bare-bones set doesn’t help much in individualizing things).  We know the husband will re-appear, complicating Rebecca’s possible love affair but not in any interesting fashion, we know the sweatshop setting will end tragically — and so on. As for that tragedy, it’s as if Strouse, Stein and Schwartz could not muster up a truly dark, painful side to their portrait of  a bustling, on-the-make, polyglot America. The factory fire happens entirely offstage — fair enough, we don’t need to see people burn to death in a musical — but because the characters exist mostly as outlines, losing one or two carries little impact. What’s more, the fire is meant to be pivotal — in truth, it galvanized the International Ladies Garment Union and helped spearhead work-safety regulations — but rather than a stirring Norma Rae moment, the resolution feels as though, at the last minute, the union story has hijacked Rebecca’s story. She never felt fully committed to unionizing until only a scene or two before, so it doesn’t seem as though her heart and soul and love-life are all fully wedded here.

Much has been made of Rags as an attempted Fiddler sequel that failed to catch the same lightning — as if one of Tevye’s daughters did finally make it across the Atlantic. But the fact is that Broadway musicals and Hollywood studio films primarily tell stories about historic periods or social developments through individuals (that’s one reason such characters seem larger-than-life — they’re rarely just a single person). So Rags doesn’t have to be measured against Fiddler to see that it stumbles on a basic method of the musical: telling a story about one person, one couple or one family that just happens to draw in larger meanings (yes, Stephen Sondheim musicals often don’t follow this pattern, but that’s one reason they’re Stephen Sondheim musicals).

It seems as though Rags started as some family lore, a premise, a lot of reading in Lower East Side history — and then it went in search of characters. True, lots of art works develop like that.

But even with some gorgeous (or lively) tunes, a lot of promise and a lot of hard work, Rags‘ story still feels stitched together.