sun 14/07/2024

Rags: The Musical, Park Theatre review - a timely, if predictable, immigrant tale | reviews, news & interviews

Rags: The Musical, Park Theatre review - a timely, if predictable, immigrant tale

Rags: The Musical, Park Theatre review - a timely, if predictable, immigrant tale

Current events lend urgency to this historical work

Family values: Bella (Martha Kirby) and father Avram (Dave Willetts) house David (Jude Muir) and Rebecca (Carolyn Maitland)Pamela Raith

“Take our country back!” is the rallying cry of the self-identified “real” Americans gathered to protest the arrival of immigrants.

It could be a contemporary Trump rally – or, indeed, the nastier side of current British political discourse – but in fact this scene is from a 1986 musical, set in 1910, from an all-star creative team: book by Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof), score by Charles Strouse (Annie) and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked). Despite that pedigree, it bombed on Broadway, but this opportune revival, transferred from Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, gains potency by demonstrating that prejudice has no time limits.

Widowed Rebecca (Carolyn Maitland, pictured below right), who is supporting a young son, befriends fellow emigrating Eastern-European Jew Bella (Martha Kirby) while travelling on the boat from Russia to New York. Bella’s family then vouches for them – Rebecca has neither the required $20 nor resident relatives for entry – and she repays their kindness by lending her sewing skills to their fledgling clothing business. She’s soon caught between rival suitors, Italian union organiser Sal (Alex Gibson-Giorgio) and German businessman Bronfman (Sam Attwater), while Bella is romanced by budding composer Ben (Oisin Nolan-Power) – to the disapproval of her overprotective father Avram (Dave Willetts).

Rags The MusicalRags originally began as a rough sequel to Fiddler, with book-writer Stein keen to explore the immigrant experience of families like Tevye and his clan, victims of a pogrom back home. It has since had numerous alterations, including the addition of a revised book from David Thompson that emphasises the struggle of cultural assimilation. That element is certainly effective here, as we see various characters trying to hold onto their Old World identity while pursuing American opportunity and dreaming of financial security, all while victims and perpetrators of various biases; the family is subject to vile anti-Semitism, but is also quick to judge Catholics, or other immigrant groups like the Irish or Italians.

There’s plenty of wry observational humour, too, as we see this disparate group squashed together in a three-room tenement, and clashing over how to succeed in their new “promised land”. Rebecca wants to make it uptown, even if that means striking out on her own and surrendering her Jewish last name, while Bella’s uncle Jack – who runs the family business – frets about disturbing their existing arrangement with Bronfman, where they supply work and he deals with upper-crust goyish customers. There’s also pointed commentary about a capitalist nation’s hypocrisy in eagerly using cheap immigrant labour, while spouting xenophobic bile.

However, the plot leans too heavily on predictable clichés, and the messaging becomes increasingly dubious in a tragedy-struck second half. Any nuance is lost in a broad "conservative oldies versus restless youngsters" conflict, and in an inert love triangle that pits evil big business against the brave, victimised worker (pictured below), while female characters are seemingly punished for their ambition and independence. It’s also a tad dispiriting to see yet another musical where a woman’s saintly maternal instincts are constantly emphasised, as a way to make her automatically sympathetic, rather than allowing her to develop as a three-dimensional person.

Rags The MusicalThankfully, Maitland rises above such confines, bringing to Rebecca a luminous authenticity and unforced, beautifully expressive powerhouse vocals; she is surely a star in the making. There is excellent work too from Willetts as gruff but vulnerable Avram, Nolan-Power as a Tigger-ish Ben, Jeremy Rose and Debbie Chazen as the resolute uncle and aunt, Gibson-Giorgio’s passionate Sal, and Kirby’s determined Bella. But the songs, unfortunately, are more functional than transporting, despite an appropriate mix of klezmer, jazz and ragtime; some are goopily sentimental, most stall the action. The exception is the witty real-estate seduction number “Three Sunny Rooms”, in which widow Rachel (a droll Rachel Izen) entices Avram.

Nevertheless, Bronagh Lagan’s crisp production retains our engagement, making great use of onstage musicians, a versatile ensemble (with clever movement by Philip Michael Thomas, including some audience interaction), striking lighting from Derek Anderson, and minimal but valuable props. With transient instability and figurative baggage both key motifs, Gregor Donnelly lines the back wall with suitcases, which then open up to add visual support for Fourth of July celebrations on Coney Island. Traders also sell their wares out of cases, and when the family goes to see a Yiddish theatre production of Hamlet (an uproarious vignette), their seating consists of steamer trunks. The bigots stoking hatred are framed through vaudevillian patter, dance and magic tricks – and made all the more ominous because their venom is sold via entertainment. Sound familiar? An inescapably flawed piece, but one with “Make America Great Again” thundering through its urgent delivery.


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