There are a select few musicals that, despite bombing during their original New York productions, have been produced with surprising regularity by regional theaters across the country, often with revised books. Some have been kind-of fixed, like Merrily We Roll Along or Candide, both of which can make for wonderful entertainment, if not great musicals in and of themselves. Others, such as Anyone Can Whistle or Mack & Mabel, simply don’t work, regardless of who tinkers with what. The reason why such shows continue to be produced despite flaws is that they fulfill two specific criteria. First, they need a wonderful score, the kind that makes the show on record seem like a surefire hit. Secondly, they need a subject matter that sounds interesting enough on paper to make theatre companies think that they will be the first to “crack” the material where others have failed. Such is the case with TheatreWorks, Silicon Valley’s production of Rags, which ultimately does not come together to create a satisfying evening of theatre, but offers enough of interest to reveal why companies still keep giving Rags a shot.
Rags opened originally on Broadway on August 21st, 1986, before closing…on August 23rd, 1986. The production was obscenely expensive and had to close almost immediately after chilly reviews failed to help the show’s lack of advance sales. With a libretto by Joseph Stein of Fiddler on the Roof fame, the show tells the story of Rebecca Hershkowitz, a Russian-Jewish immigrant forced out of Russia by one of the pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who migrates to New York with her son David before taking up residence with Bella, another Jewish immigrant, and her father Avram, after failing to locate her husband, who had previously migrated to America the year before. The musical attempts to tell the stories of Rebecca, David, Bella, and Avram separately, while also including a storyline about the general headspace of the immigrant populace and painting a portrait of America itself at the time.
Because of the sheer number of storylines it tries to present, Rags suffers from being overstuffed and under-long. In its current incarnation, Rags runs two hours and fifteen minutes with an intermission, which is not particularly long for a musical. It’s simply not possible to tell the amount of story within Rags and have everything come across clearly and effectively with such a small amount of space. As a result, major plot developments occur often and without much commentary by the characters, and motivations are frequently (read: always) sacrificed in the interest of brevity. What results is a show that feels strangely undramatic, a pageant of archetypal personalities presented with a laundry list of issues that they don’t so much tackle as casually move out of the way. You’ll lose count of how many plot threads that were seemingly important are either resolved without suspense or even simply forgotten about. If Rags were four hours long, I doubt many people would want to see it, especially considering that the book on a moment-to-moment basis is decent if slightly glib yet nothing particularly of note, but the various important threads within the story could at least be woven into something interesting instead of left dangling in the wind.
Rags also doesn’t quite fulfill the criteria I previously established for “un-revivable shows that continue to be revived”. Yes, the subject matter of Russian-Jewish immigrants learning to make a life for themselves in 1910 New York has enough intrigue and pathos to be mined to create a first-rate musical, but the score is something less-than great. Composed by Charles Strouse (he of Bye Bye Birdie and Annie fame), the music is undoubtably solid—and looks like Gershwin in comparison to most of the music being written for modern Broadway musicals—with one first-rate song (“Blame It on the Summer Night”), but has no through-line in composition; most songs sound as if they were written completely independently of each other, and Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics are bland and predictable in a way that the composer-lyricist’s rarely are.
What results is a musical that, while inoffensive in the moment-to-moment, ultimately results in exactly equal to the sum of its parts, which is to say not much. There are worse shows out there, and musical theatre buffs shouldn’t skip out on a chance to witness such a fascinating part of theatre history, but casual fans need make no fast plans to come see Rags. If you are still interested in the show, Theaterworks’s production is skillful and polished, if not quite ideal, though it is sung exceedingly well. Kyra Miller as Rebecca has the strongest voice of the cast, her operatic Mezzo-Soprano voice handling the score’s tough demands with ease. She’s a good actress, too, though the show’s nature requires little acting from most of the cast, instead encouraging broad caricature. The exception to this is Donald Corren as Avram, who digs deeper into his stereotypical character (of the wise, cranky old Russian Jew) and plays very well off of Darlene Popovic as Rachel, an older fruit vendor whose cart neighbors Avram’s (who sells various everyday items). Their storyline is reminiscent of Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz in Cabaret and the two actors had charm enough to make me feel like I was watching that show instead of this one.
Director Robert Kelley would do well by adding some more spark into his staging, but he makes uncommonly good use of the shallow stage of the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, especially considering that a large chunk of the thrust has been taken out to accommodate an orchestra pit and Joe Ragney’s huge, industrial eyesore of a set takes up another large portion of the remaining space. The Mountain View Center, however, is an uncommonly poorly designed theatre, its lack of proscenium, high ceilings, and wide-set audience seating area create the illusion that the 600-seat theatre is actually three or four times larger than it is, which prevents any intimacy with the audience that might have otherwise developed.
Special mention must be made to the aforementioned pit orchestra, who play the score with a wonderful level of oomph, presumably thanks to conductor William Liberatore.
It would be nice to say that Rags is a hidden gem amongst other flop musicals, but sadly, this is not the case. Maybe one day some brilliant playwright or director will be able to unlock the secrets of the show and create a passionate, beautiful musical about the immigrant experience, but unfortunately, today is not that day.
Rags plays in Mountain View through April 30. Tickets and information available here.