Writer: Joseph Stein revised by David Thompson
Music: Charles Strouse
Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Director: Bronagh Lagan
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
With themes including difficulties faced by immigrants, the conflict between individualism and the collective good, cultural identity and the exploitation of workers there is no question that Rags the Musicalis relevant to a contemporary audience. But relevant does not necessarily mean good- the fact that it has taken 30 years for the show to be staged in the UK and it was substantially revised along the way raises some concerns about quality. Yet quality is something that is always associated with Hope Mill and for Rags the Musical they have achieved the sizable coup of involving lyricist Stephen Schwartz in rehearsals for, and development of, the production.
In the early 20thcentury Rebecca (Rebecca Trehearn) escapes Russian pogroms by moving to America with her son David (Lochlan White). A chance encounter with Bella (Lydia White) ensures Rebecca has a place to stay and her skills as a seamstress give her the chance to move towards achieving the American dream of success. Rebecca has to balance the temptation of a more prosperous lifestyle, using her talents to the full while adopting a new cultural identity and changing her name to ‘ Harris’, against the harder option of supporting her friends when they take strike action against exploitative employers. The choice is made more complicated by her employer Bronfman (Gavin James) and trade unionist Sal (Robert Tripolino) both having more than a professional interest in Rebecca.
Despite the dark subject matter Rags the Musical is anything but dour. Director Bronagh Lagan sets a surprisingly light tone. A ‘Greek Chorus’ cynically sing of the virtues of capitalism and joke about the exploitation of immigrants while performing a soft shoe shuffle. Valda Aviks’s talkative widow Rachel and Michael S. Siegel’s taciturn put-upon Avram might be clichéd characters but they are a very funny double act and the Jewish version of Hamlet is simply hilarious.
Underneath the humour is, however, a shadowy sense of intrigue and even danger. Lagan exploits the intimate nature of Hope Mill to create the sense of a crowded community of people living on top of each other and in which it is worryingly possible to overhear neighbours snarling hate-speak.
Gregor Donnelly’s designs reflect an itinerant community that is weary but unable to rest. Suitcases stacked carelessly show a resigned familiarity with the need to pack and leave in a hurry and – in a nice touch- their silhouette resembles the New York skyline.
There is a distinct shift between Acts with the community in the first being sharply divided along ethnic lines while in the second everyone seems united against the exploitative capitalist system. The score, with hints of authentic Jewish tunes and period music like ragtime, captures the melting pot of the New York ghetto especially with most of the instruments being played live by the cast. Most significantly, however, with Rags and Children of the Wind the show has some genuinely rousing songs that lift the spirit – which is increasingly rare in modern musicals.
Lydia White makes a charming professional stage debut as the lively and spirited Bella. Rebecca Trehearn is an excellent heroine; carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders but very much aware of her own worth and determined not to let past horrors overwhelm her future.
It has taken over 30 years for Rags the Musical to reach the UK; worth the wait.
Runs until 6 April 2019 | Image: Nathan Chandler