Review: 'Rags' at Goodspeed Musicals

Maegan Clearwood

  • OnStage Associate Connecticut Critic

One might think that a musical about immigrants -- particularly one that zeroes in on the hardships and discrimination of such experiences, and spearheaded by such theatrical legends as Charles Strouse (Annie, Bye Bye Birdie), Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell), and Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof) -- would be unnervingly relevant in a 2017 America seething with tension over such very themes. Director Rob Ruggiero certainly seems to think so of Rags, a revival of the 1986 Broadway bust that’s being completely rewired and reworked at Goodspeed Musicals: “The story of American immigrants – of all ethnicities – is a profound reminder of the challenges and privileges we share as Americans. When you tell a story like RAGS in 2017, you can’t ignore the opportunity (and responsibility) this musical provides to offer insight into the immigrant experience,” he explains in his Director’s Vision.

Rags flopped on Broadway for myriad reasons – poor budgeting and an unwieldy plot are cited as the biggest factors – but the creative team, joined by David Thompson as the librettist in the late Stein’s stead, had a prime opportunity to reinvent this story to be a larger parable about a nation that seems more fractured than ever, to use the past to converse with the present. Where the musical succeeds is in its execution, from universally astounding vocal performances to a well-crafted historical world (thanks in no small part to costume designer Linda Cho). Where it fails is in its efforts as a clearly traditional, Golden-age-of-Broadway-influenced musical to catch up with contemporary dialogue about the immigrant experience.

This rewritten Rags still traces the story of an ensemble of Jewish immigrants, from their first hopeful steps onto Ellis Island to the tragedies and hardships that befall them in the tenements. This updated version focuses on Rebecca Herschkowitz (Samantha Massell, with vocal radiance), a widowed mother with a genius for sewing that soon seems to be her ticket uptown. Rebecca becomes entangled in a love triangle between the seductive Italian unionist Sal (a seductive, if blatantly stereotypical, portrayal by Sean MacLauhlin), and the high-society fellow Jew Max (a mustache-twirling David Harris), as her family and friends struggle to also find love and security in an increasingly uncompromising new world.

The production’s many, rarely subtle attempts to commentate on what it means to be an American feel more like a history lesson than a textured universe. It opens, for instance, with a projection of the American flag, followed by a series of black-and-white portraits, disappearing to reveal a flood of hopeful travelers expounding on their various hardships. The production relies heavily on projections (by designer Luke Cantarella) to tell instead of show, plastering the stage with newspaper headlines and historical photographs; the result is a feeling of two-dimensionality, making the imposing use of aisles and balconies and entrances and exits jarring as well as unnecessary. The only exception to this flatness is the apartment, a rotating centerpiece (by scenic designer Michael Schweikardt) that spins between the front and back rooms with motion-sickness-inducing frequency.

The set’s lack of dimension extends to the music, particularly the lyrics, which rarely provide much insight into the immigrant experience beyond such trite observations as “that’s how we make the fabric of America” and “we may be lost and stranded, but we’re part of this brand new world.” The score was clearly heavily influenced by traditional, brassy, pep-inducing Broadway shows of yore, resulting in songs that are airy and fun, but rarely memorable. The two exceptions here are “Blame it on the Summer Night” – a steamy duet between Rebecca and Sal – and “Three Sunny Rooms,” a more tongue-in-cheek but grounded love song between Rachel (a charming Lori Wilner) and Avram (an also-charming Adam Heller, despite the character’s being a carbon-copy of Tevye).

As a whole, the ensemble does commendable work bringing the less-than-original songs to life. Sara Kapner is an endearing Bella, Rebecca’s naïve young friend, and Christian Michael Camporin plays Rebecca’s son David with surprising depth for such a young performer. The ensemble itself has little to work off of, particularly when portraying the upper-crust New Yorkers who are given little to do beyond strut with canes and parasols and sing about how dirty the new immigrants are (again, commendation to Cho for her impeccable period-specific designs). Despite these obstacles, there is not a dud to be found among the performers in terms of vocal brilliance, and the melodically predictable songs soar in Goodspeed’s stunning theatre.

The libretto does not offer any original insight into the immigrant experience, and often treads into familiar narrative territory: the beautiful woman torn between lovers, the one-dimensionally villainous aristocrats, and (here be spoilers) the innocent youngster destroyed by the literal deadly forces of urbanization. One striking development from earlier iterations of the book is with Rebecca’s love interest, Sal, who was once Saul, and (presumably) Jewish rather than Italian. This explains one of the more confusing moments in the play, when the now-Italian Sal attempts to teach Rebecca English, begging the question: What language were they speaking up until this point? (It is plausible that Rebecca can speak but not read or write English – a loophole that this writer finds eyebrow-raisingly dubious).

But beyond causing a dramaturgical hiccup, this change in character identity underscores one of the production’s painfully obvious themes: despite our ethnic and demographic backgrounds, we are ultimately all the same.  Sal even sings of this in “Meet an Italian,” when he pokes fun at the similarities among Italian and Jewish stereotypes (they both love to argue and eat, but not as much as they love their overbearing mothers). Nowhere is this message more force-fed, however, than in the finale, when the characters, rich and poor alike, reprise familiar melodies as the projection scrim is plastered with black-and-white images of Ellis Island newcomers – only to be gradually replaced with more contemporary photographs, colorful images of immigrants from vastly diverse backgrounds, including people of color and refugees. Rags tells us that, regardless of our nationality, skin color, heritage, background, everyone’s journey to America, is at its core, identical.

This is, of course, patently false. Similar to the oft-heard idiom “we’re all immigrants” as a simplified argument for welcoming immigrants and refugees into the country, the message of Rags white-washes American history, implying that the story of early 20th century Americans is ultimately the same as that of refugees or indigenous people or African-Americans or people of color. This is a dangerous erasure of history, an attempt to slap a glossy political message onto a narrative that is clearly stuck in the past; the immigrants even sing homage to Christopher Columbus as they catch first glimpses of America, a message that any writer in-tune with the current political climate would likely avoid (and for anyone who wants to argue that it’s historically accurate for 1910s immigrants to idolize Columbus, even if 2017 Americans are beginning to call his heroism into question, his holiday wasn’t founded until the 1930s, and it was Italian immigrants specifically who brought him to the realm of celebrity, not immigrants in general).

There is one striking moment in Act One that accomplishes what the production seems to be aiming for, when the family honors Shabbos with blessings and candles and challah; the serene, simple moment becomes a duet, as Sal and his family attend Latin Catholic mass. The layering of language and ritual makes for a moment of quiet reflection, prompting the audience to consider cultural parallels and where our own disparate lives intersect.

It’s a shame that Rags doesn’t have more moments like this, and that it slaps a sanitized message on a messy subject instead of attempts to actively engage in a topic that America needs to address. It’s heartening to see an institution like Goodspeed give such a thematically resonant story a second chance, and the effort and energy thrown behind this production is palpable. Rags may have a future yet, but unless its creators are willing to question America’s history rather than deliver an after-school-special message about it, that future is dubious indeed.

Sara Kapner (Bella), Samantha Massell (Rebecca) and Christian Michael Camporin (David) in Goodspeed Musicals RAGS Photo by Diane Sobolewski