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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on November 24, 1999. All rights reserved.
Review: `Rags’ at Paper Mill
Rags, the musical that lasted only four performances
on Broadway in 1986, has made a comeback at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
This is the third and undoubtedly best version so far of the ambitious
musical about the experiences of Eastern European Jews who immigrated
to New York in 1910. This doesn’t mean that the all too serious-minded
show has been coaxed into hitsville. What has been accomplished is
a major downsizing of the production-heavy show by its collaborators
Joseph Stein (book), Charles Strouse (music), and Stephen Schwartz
This is a process that they began in earnest soon after the show
on Broadway. When "Rags" reappeared a few years ago at the
Jewish Repertory in an extremely modest production, one could still
see the musical’s virtues and in closer relief, still evident flaws.
Now a middle ground has been achieved with a handsomely designed
cleverly directed by Jeffrey B. Moss, imported to the Paper Mill
from Florida’s Coconut Grove Playhouse. Performances continue at Paper
Mill through December 12.
Despite the soaring, often glorious richness of the score by Strouse
(composer of "Annie" and other hit musicals), and the
literate lyrics of Schwartz, there is something about the downbeat
earnestness of Stein’s book that neutralizes our involvement and
Come on guys. What should have been fixed over the past
13 years wasn’t. This is not the problem of Moss, the director, who
does his best to keep the unpleasantness of so much of the plot at
bay. Perhaps a bit more convoluted than inspiring, the musical follows
the experiences of Rebecca, a young Jewish immigrant who arrives in
America in 1910 with her son David, only to discover that her husband
Nathan, who preceded her to America, is nowhere to be found. That
is, for most of Act I.
The pair is befriended by Bella, a compassionate young woman and her
stern, old-fashioned father Avram, and brought home to live with them.
When Rebecca finds work behind a sewing machine in a sweatshop, she
also cautiously finds romance with Saul, a union organizer. The
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, in which some 70 women were
killed due to doors and windows that were locked during working hours,
inspires the tragic climax to a romance between Bella and Ben, her
ambitious young suitor.
Although the "Rags" cast is an exemplary one, and despite
the feeling one has that they are representations of types rather
than real people, they ably fulfill both the dramatic and musical
requirements. Jonathan Andrew Bleicher, as the young David, gets our
attention as soon as he steps off the boat. His winning personality
and exceptional voice adds considerable sparkle to the strains of
the optimistic "Brand New World," a quartet he shares with
Marilyn Caskey (Rebecca), M. Kathryn Quinlan (Bella), and Christopher
Bishop (Avram). Caskey empowers the pivotal role of Rebecca with the
kind of thrilling vocal power and sturdy dramatic force that propelled
the role’s originator, opera star Teresa Stratas. Caskey’s soaring,
aria-like lament about not having roots, "Children of the
and the way she stirs up Rebecca’s sensuality in the bluesy ballad,
"Blame it on the Summer Night," are memorable moments.
No less impressive is Quinlan, whose distinctively contrasted soprano
voice showcases the musical’s exuberant title tune —
— in a lovely scene in which the squalid life of the ghetto is
contrasted against a well-healed New York couple, waltzing about in
their all-white finery. With its concentration on earthy drab tones,
the costumes designed by Carrie Robbins have the look of homemade
authenticity. Barbara Siman’s choreography is minimal, but has, as
its most receptive participants, a trio of dapper vaudevillians
Bell, William Whitefield, Angela DeCicco) who periodically appear
to provide satiric observations about "greenhorns."
Another, more humorous romance blossoms between Abram, a middle-aged
pushcart peddler, and Rachel, a widow with "Three Sunny
This delightful duet in which the street-wise and love-wanting Rachel
aggressively woos the conservative Abram is worth the price of
Maureen Sillman’s heart-warming chutzpah and Christopher Bishop’s
perpetuation of old-world values lift the otherwise dour doings of
the musical out of the doldrums. The appearance of Nathan, who has
political ambitions and has set his sights on being a ward leader
for Tammany Hall, complicates life for Rebecca and Saul. Wayne LeGette
is excellent as Nathan, the misguided political pawn who fails in
his efforts to re-bond with his son ("Yankee Boy") or entice
his wife ("Uptown"). Raymond Jaramillo McLeod makes a good
impression as the tough union organizer with whom Rebecca falls in
An impressive, single unit setting by designer James Morgan provides
the dark and cold architectural style of archways and columns that
appear to replicate the old immigration center at Ellis Island. A
modest stage lift is used effectively for action on the streets of
New York and for the smartly compacted interior scenes.
"Rags," for all its worthy intentions, is something of a
It is a task to empathize with people who seem to be present only
to reflect the political and social canvas of the era. Only in fits
and spurts, and largely through the music, do the characters reach
out and touch us. Otherwise the consideration of the political
of the times (so what else is new?), the exploitation of labor, and
the pursuit of the American dream are all exposed through facile
Governor Whitman was present at the performance I attended. I tried
to catch her expression when Nathan said, "My job is to make
like me. In America, that means politics." I think she smiled.
That brought the drama home.
— Simon Saltzman
973-376-4343. $36 to $60. Performances continue through December 12.
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