rags 2 - filichia

While they were making so many changes – and improvements – why didn’t they change the title, too?

There was nothing wrong with calling a musical RAGS back in 1986. But a dozen years later, along came RAGTIME, which wound up running 208 times longer than RAGS’ mere four performances.

As intermission was ending during the current RAGS revival at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT, I overheard a man telling a woman “I coulda sworn I saw this show in New York with that Brian actor with the funny middle name, but now I don’t think it’s the same show.

It isn’t, although it does take place in the early 20th century, as RAGTIME does. As long as new bookwriter David Thompson and the original songwriting team of composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Stephen Schwartz insist on retaining the title, many a theatergoer will make such a mistake.

Truth to tell, RAGS would be wise to distance itself from RAGTIME for a different reason. Although the profoundly worthy show has been excellently refurbished, its ambition – which is considerable – is nevertheless not as far-reaching as RAGTIME’s.

For while the McNally-Ahrens-Flaherty masterpiece deals with turn-of-the-last-century blacks, WASPS and Jews, RAGS is content to “just” deal with the last two groups – with an emphasis on the latter.

The plight of any group of unwanted immigrants is worth exploring and certainly in these especially relevant times. Perhaps having the well-heeled WASPS sing “Take Our City Back” is a little too on-the-nose; having elegant women join the outcry seems odd, too. In an era when many wives kept their mouths shut about political issues, would they really be blatantly vocal in public and use such slurs as “Hebes and wops” to indict sects of Europeans? Better to have only the seen-it-all Ellis Island guards comment on the situation.

In the 1986 original, Nathan Hershkowitz came to America long before his wife and son could get out. Now that Rebecca and their son David finally have enough money to join him in America, they find he’s not there to meet them at the boat.

During Rebecca’s long weeks of searching, she is smitten with Saul, a factory co-worker. Both are much overworked and terribly underpaid, but Saul challenges those conditions. Rebecca is frightened to rock the boat, given that she just got off one.

Still, she stays attracted to Saul and adultery could be on the horizon. Then Nat Harris – né Nathan Hershkowitz – shows up and feels he’s outgrown these broken-English reminders of the old country.

Other principal characters abounded: Bella and Avram, who took in Rebecca and David when Nathan didn’t show; Ben, a young entrepreneur whom we know will succeed because he sells and believes in this new invention called a phonograph; Rachel, a widow who decides that Avram should be her next husband.

He, by the way, was a respected scholar in the old country; now he’s relegated to selling kitchen items from a pushcart. So much for “The Land of Opportunity.”

RAGS was often criticized for creating too many characters to follow, so Thompson made the decision to drop one of them.

The surprise is that it’s Nathan.

That risked taking away a good deal of drama, for a wife and mother faces a seemingly insurmountable problem when she learns that the husband whom she expected to welcome and cherish her with tears of joy is now a virtual stranger.

Thompson has instead made Rebecca a widow, which eliminates the issue of adultery. This also makes her more courageous in setting out for a new land where she literally knows no one.

That leads to a potent scene where Ellis Island officers threaten to deny her entrance because no one has arrived to meet her (and because she doesn’t have enough money to bribe them). As solid is that conflict is, the officers should threaten her with immediate deportment and not just a meeting with bureaucrats.

Rebecca is sharp enough to claim that Bella, whom she’d befriended on the voyage, and her father Avram are her relatives. Rob Ruggiero, who has otherwise directed a fast-moving and solid production, errs here by making both Bella and Avram not catch on soon enough; considering their questioning looks and lack of affirmation, the guards would well know that Rebecca is lying.

So off they go to Bella’s Uncle Jack and Aunt Anna. He’s been in America long enough to not expect to run into any gold-paved streets. As he notes, “One knock on the door and they can put you out on the street for all to see.”

Conversely, Aunt Anna is a big-hearted woman who welcomes the itinerants with a more-the-merrier point-of-view.

In the roster of characters, Thompson giveth as well as taketh away. He created the prosperous Max Bronfman, the factory owner who admires Rebecca’s skill in designing dresses and is a possible romantic interest. So is Sal, the rewritten Saul, who’s now a neighbor rather than a co-worker. The character is still “a “progressive reformer.”

(Jack says dryly, “That’s what we call a person who doesn’t have a job.”)

Sal is Italian; Rebecca’s Jewish. Are you making a face at the ol’ and tired plot of so-their-love-can-never-be? Bronfman’s Jewish, though. As trite as the rich man/poor man conundrum may seem, plot twists and Rebecca’s eventual choice may surprise you. So will David, who gets a single baseball card as a gift from Sal and no less than two box-seats for a game from Max. In both situations, Thompson has more important messages to impart.

Not everyone or everything winds up happily, but Thompson is careful to keep the play’s most potent line tautly delivered by Rebecca: “They let you do anything here. They don’t make it easy for you, but they let you do it.”

Samantha Massell is a real find as Rebecca. She has beauty, charm, strength and bravery as well as a voice that beautifully delivers her share of, yes, sixteen songs. Although Strouse has written much glorious music in his seven-decade Broadway career,

“Blame It on the Summer Night” – Rebecca’s realization of feelings for Sal – is one of his most sultry and beautiful. Sara Kapner has much appeal as Bella, and Mitch Greenberg sees that Jack delivers his gloom-and-doom with the appropriate world-weariness.

Those who know the score from the almost-original cast album (Julia Migenes played Rebecca when Teresa Stratas didn’t make herself available), you’ll find only nine of the 20 songs have been retained. “Greenhorns” and Rebecca’s excitement at a “Brand New World” are pretty much where they were before, but the thrilling “Children of the Wind” — Rebecca’s recalling her long journey and then looking to the future whose results will convince her that the arduous trek was well worth it – is now her eleven o’clock number.

It’s a good decision. The song used to follow “Brand New World” and in essence gave Rebecca not one but two songs to establish who she was. Given Schwartz’s incisive lyrics, they seem more apt for a woman who’s now been in the country for some time.

That left a void of 11 songs that has been filled by just that number. Some are songs that were in the show but didn’t make the recording; others may be new or ones that were discarded in 1986, the music is still marvelous and Schwartz’s lyrics are, as they’ve always been, perceptive. “See that lady?” Rebecca asks David before remarking in astonishment “Where did she get all those eggs?” – reminding us that food is far less plentiful in other parts of the world. If one is looking to explain to theatrical novices what a “charm song” is, he need only point to “Three Sunny Rooms,” in which Rachel makes her move to land Avram.

The musical reminds us that many of us come from ancestors who once paid a great sum of money to get on a boat, endure terrible conditions on a long, long journey and then were devastated to find that they weren’t remotely welcomed despite the Statue of Liberty’s urging “Give me your tired, your poor.”

What heroes they were! So honor thy great-grandfather and great-grandmother by seeing CHILDREN OF THE WIND – excuse me, RAGS.