Corrections or additions?

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

(lyrics).

This is a process that they began in earnest soon after the show

closed

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

production,

cleverly directed by Jeffrey B. Moss, imported to the Paper Mill

Playhouse

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

trenchant

literate lyrics of Schwartz, there is something about the downbeat

earnestness of Stein’s book that neutralizes our involvement and

dissipates

our pleasure.

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

real-life

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

Wind,"

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 —

"Rags"

— 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

(Hunter

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

Rooms."

This delightful duet in which the street-wise and love-wanting Rachel

aggressively woos the conservative Abram is worth the price of

admission.

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

love.

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

downer.

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

corruption

of the times (so what else is new?), the exploitation of labor, and

the pursuit of the American dream are all exposed through facile

generalities.

Governor Whitman was present at the performance I attended. I tried

to catch her expression when Nathan said, "My job is to make

people

like me. In America, that means politics." I think she smiled.

That brought the drama home.

— Simon Saltzman

Rags, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn,

973-376-4343. $36 to $60. Performances continue through December 12.


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