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A CurtainUp Review Rags

by Kathryn Osenlund

Charles Strouse, the composer, and Joseph Stein, the author, were in attendance at opening night of the once-more resurrected Rags at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. The musical that won't give up is making a comeback.

Scene one opens dramatically in black, gold and blue. We see the interior of a ship as it enters New York harbor. It carries immigrants, the wretched refuse. Among them are Rebecca Hershkowitz (Betsi Morrison) and her son, David (Mark Richard Keith). Escaping from Russia, they are searching for Nathan (Michael Brian), Rebecca's husband and David's father. This is essentially to be Rebecca's story but it ranges over a lot of territory as a paean to the Jewish immigrant experience, but more about that later.

Rebecca befriends other immigrants who help her. Bella (Mary Kate McGrath) is a belter who can sing. Her father Avram Cohen (Bruce Winant) keeps a tight rein on her. He does not approve of her love-interest, Ben (Jeffrey Coon). Rebecca is looking for security. She wants someone (her husband) to take care of her and her son. It will turn out that her son doesn't need much looking after. But in "Children of the Wind" a lovely song that seems a fragment, she begins to state her case and her powerful voice practically blasts you out of your seat.

Play-particular songs have lyrics like "finally, David, nothing will hurt us again." Operatic (currently considered a plus in the musical world), they carry a lot of narrative. Still, to some, a real torch song would be welcome. Neither "Children of the Wind" nor "Rags" fills the bill for a song that truly can stand on its own outside the production, nor were either probably intended as such. Pity for, the reigning operatic approach notwithstanding, there is something to be said for throwing in a few unfashionable songs that can live alone.

"The Americans," four incongruously dressed people, serve as a framing device/chorus. Unfortunately it is hard to understand the lyrics of songs, like "Greenhorns." They must represent the immigrants' imagined ideal, the uptown swells. "The Americans" are ambiguous and deliberately not assimilated into the play. Their removed quality makes them kind of spooky.

One memorably haunting scene has a clarinet player on a fire escape/balcony. He is one of three intermittently appearing street musicians . The melody and lyrics of the duets are this muscial's strengths. An impending tragedy is subtly foreshadowed in the music of a prior scene. Overall, the music is a masterful mix of genres.

Rags carries a lot of freight. Among the issues are assimilation and identity questions that face immigrants, interactions of different kinds of Jews, generational clashes, and implicit questions about class and what constitutes real class. These are set against the back-drop question of what it means to be American. There are also politics and political issues in the mix: Tammany Hall, certainly unions and sweatshops, and problems of paternalism. Anti-Semitism is amusingly treated in Big Tim Sullivan's song, "What's Wrong with That?" Hard to know what to make of that song.

A romping Hamlet, in a play-within-a-play bit of silly business, provides comic relief-- in a production already brimming with humor and ethnic wit. Even an anachronistic Israeli flag makes its way into this segment.

A very nice counterpoint occurs in mirroring scenes where Rebecca wants Nathan to leave a political meeting and he refuses. Later Nathan wants Rebecca to leave a union meeting and she won't.

According to musical tradition, you see characters' true colors in the musical numbers. Their songs tell you who they are. Particularly telling is Nathan Hershkowitz's, a.k. a Nat Harris's song, "Uptown." Even more than most, he wants to be upwardly mobile. But all have their dreams: "Life will be full, life will be sweet, life will be finally like living." The characters all pine for chances at a new life.

Rachel Halpern, delightfully acted and sung by Connie Nelson, is an older widow looking for her last chance to get a man to share her declining years. She sets her sights on Avram. The charming and clever "Three Sunny Rooms," sung by Rachel and Avram, is a major highlight of the production. However, thin and obtrusive stage business with customers and vegetable carts during the song threatens to spoil it.

There is some floating-on-air also, although that is to be expected to some extent in a musical. The husband who appears, Dickens-like out of nowhere, does not seem to have a home, even when he must have taken Rebecca and the child there. We see no picture of family life with them. Meanwhile, she has fallen in love with a union organizer, Saul (Michael Gruber), and a good deal of attention has been paid to the development of their romantic possibilities. Their songs, "Easy for You" and "Wanting" are intricate and nicely balanced.

So, through the influence of Saul, and through adversity, Rebecca eventually learns to broaden her view and to see security, her dream, as something shared among a larger group of people, not just something for her nuclear family. She becomes, perhaps, more independent, but she also apparently loses her job. Is the larger group really secure? Is she, by the end, any less a child of the wind than she was at the beginning? The play would like us to think so.

The emotional through-line builds toward the end, but when it comes, the real and needed emotional wallop is from a once-removed issue. It doesn't come from Rebecca's story, as it seems the emotional hit should. Not intrinsically related to her personal life, a tragedy acts as an impetus in one area of her life.

Rags ultimately needs a resolution that it can't have. The missing obligatory scene can't happen, which is why the ending is not enough to truly satisfy. The underpinnings are not firm enough to support the needed scene because Rebecca is in a compromising position. It would be a compromising position even today-- caught between two men, one legal. It would have been quite unthinkable for a nice married woman in a Jewish immigrant community in 1910. So Rebecca does not really make a romantic choice in the play, even though the story is heavily weighted toward her doing so; the plot drives her and then abdicates. She may make a political choice, but because the love issue is not resolved, the choice remains political and the play feels fragmented. Many of the basics are in place--excellent singers and actors, beautiful, complex music, very competent set, costume, and lighting design, deft and fluid scene changes. It is honed. It is pruned. It's precise. But even a spiffy, well-done production can't compensate for a dearth of basic underpinnings. It is as if in assembling this production, perhaps by a process of attrition rather than by building from scratch, some important and some extraneous plot ingredients were moved around and out and some were never put in, and somehow it wasn't noticed. And the music is so beautiful you don't notice at first; it is satisfying until you begin to think about it.

Check out Kathryn Osenlund's roundup of other Philadelphia theaters and theatrical events.

By Joseph Stein (book), Charles Strouse (music), Stephen Schwartz (lyrics)
Directed by Bruce Lumpkin
Cast: Betsi Morrison, Mark Richard Keith (alternates performances with Chris Mirarchi), Michael Brian, Michael Gruber, Mary Kate McGrath, Bruce Winant, Jeffrey Coon, Connie Nelson, Dan Schiff, Denise Whelan
Set Design: John Farrell
Lighting Design: Jeffrey S. Koger
Costume Design: Gail Cooper-Hecht
Sound Design: Scott Smith
Running time: 2 1/2 hours with a 15 minute intermission 9/5/2000-10/22/2000;< opening 9/13/2000

Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 9/13 performance

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