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Rags Rebecca (Carolyn Maitland) and Sal (Alex Gibson-Giorgio) Photo Pamela Raih

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Rags – the Musical

Book by Joseph Stein, Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Revised book by David Thompson
Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, London until 8 Feb 2020
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Published on January 20, 2020
www.parktheatre.co.uk

This show has a great pedigree. The book is by Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof), the music is by Charles Strouse (Annie) and the lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz (Pippin etc.), and it has hallmarks of all three. Its story about the struggle for cultural assimilation of impoverished Jewish immigrants in 1910 New York City could be a follow up to Stein’s Fiddler. It has rich klezmer imbued melodies, a solid plot and a big heart and yet it is still tainted by its troubled birth because it closed after just four performances on its Broadway debut in 1986.

It was a victim of the Butcher of Broadway at a time when Broadway was in the doldrums and it’s proof that instant verdicts on new works of art may never be wise. Shows are often killed because they merely rub against the fashion of the time and as Coco Chanel famously put it, “fashion is what goes out of fashion”.

Rags Bella (Martha Kirby), Avram (Dave Willetts), David (Jude Muir) and Rebecca (Carolyn Maitland) Photo Pamela Raith

The phenomenal success of Wicked means that Schwartz is a now a ‘player’ and this must be one of the reasons he’s been able to revisit his lyrics and David Thompson has been engaged to revise the book. The piece had a highly regarded cast album, got a clutch of Tony nominations and has had many concert stagings. The revisions, we’re told, bring greater clarity to the storytelling with a focus on fewer and more compelling characters.

Schwartz embraced the decision by Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, a vibrant new powerhouse for musical theatre, to revive the show and it has now transferred to the Park Theatre.

Director Bronagh Lagan has given the show energy and fluidity and most importantly she has carefully cast it with a mix of West End veterans such as Dave Willetts (still with powerful pipes) and talented newcomers. The ensemble work is top class.

The show follows the story of Rebecca (Carolyn Maitland) a Russian Jew who flees persecution and pogroms with her ten year old son, David. On the way to America she befriends Bella (Martha Kirby) whose father Avram (Willetts), reluctantly, takes her in. Packed in two tenement rooms they all slave away in the lowest rung of the rag trade, sewing dresses from dawn till dusk.

The book neatly balances well-etched personal stories with the wider social history of the time. These frightened families were the object of vicious anti-immigrant propaganda which then of course led to attacks. Often they were scapegoated for contributing to the labour unrest as the sweatshop workers started to organise, led by activists such as Sal (Alex Gibson-Giorgio), the swarthy downstairs neighbour, who lights the Shabbat candle for the family each Friday and takes a shine to Rebecca.

With her talent, it isn’t long before Rebecca wants to break out on her own, causing friction with Avram’s family. She also becomes the apex of a love triangle between Sal the trade unionist and the rag trade merchant Bronfman (Sam Attwater).

Maitland combines a vivid stage presence with a powerful voice, which she needs for the show’s big anthemic 11 o’clock number, ‘Children of the Wind’.

There is some great character work too from Oisin Nolan-Power, as nerdy young pianist (a budding Irving Berlin type) who is the family’s ‘Schleper’ but who has eyes for Bella. 11-year old Jude Muir also shines as young David and Jeremy Rose is perfectly twitchy as the timid tailor Jack.

Joe Bunker’s musical direction and the klezmer playing of the ensemble does wonders with Strouse’s rich mellifluous score which is all honeyed light and shade.

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