Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Lyricist Stephen Schwartz told esteemed current director Rob Ruggiero that he deemed it essential to create an overarching piece. Ruggiero, also the artistic leader at TheaterWorks, is known as one with great expertise as a storyteller. The texture of the Goodspeed presentation is richly imbued with history of immigration (1910/1911) told through lovely music and song. David Thompson has deftly rewritten the libretto for the show, still honoring the book initially authored by Joseph Stein. Music was composed by Charles Strouse. David Loud contributes varied vocal arrangements while Dan DeLange provides orchestrations. In all, this is a full, timely, stunningly effective evening of musical theater which is heartfelt and absorbing. It all continues at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut through December 10th.
Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell), a single mother, is about to arrive at Ellis Island with her son David (Christian Michael Camporin). Aboard the ship, she has become friendly with youthful adolescent Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner), journeying with her father Avram (Adam Heller). They all arrive at the home of Avram's sister Anna Blumberg (Emily Zacharias), who is warm and welcoming. The tenement is hardly roomy enough to house all, but Anna will make do. Her husband Jack (Mitch Greenberg), also trying to facilitate a dressmaking business, is more than skeptical. Still, he acquiesces. Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), formerly a deliverer, gets a promotion and younger David is given the role of "schlepper." When a product is ready, he carries it away to a possible destination. Rachel Brodsky (Lori Wilner) is a widow who figures prominently in the evolving plot.
Rebecca is charismatically attractive and two men vie for her. Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin) is determined to organize workers and unwavering in his beliefs. Call him roughly romantic. Anna and Jack invite him to Shabbos in their apartment. On the other hand, Max Bronfman (David Harris), with his eyes on prosperity, is certain that Rebecca's needlework capabilities will lead to wealth uptown. Meanwhile, Bella, given a position in a factory, finds Ben enticing. The many stories are quite involving, but it would be unfair to reveal further specifics here.
The musical is emotive, fulfilling and ever appealing. A Quintet (J.D. Daw, Ellie Fishman, Danny Lindgren, Sarah Solie, and Jeff Williams) introduces and concludes the proceedings; these energized performers also appear at other intervals. The music distinguishing Rags is difficult to sing but intriguing. The entirety of the show is not overly severe. Instead, the creators infuse many a comic moment.
A first act early highlight number, "If We Never Meet Again," features actresses Massell, and Kapner, respectively playing Rebecca and Bella, combining voices. "Fabric of America" includes those women as well as Salstone, Greenberg, and Zacharias, as Ben, Jack, and Anna. The first portion of the production is quite lengthy, and midway through, Rebecca and Bella come together for "Children of the Wind" and a reprise of "If We Never Meet Again." A bit later Sal (MacLaughlin) and Rebecca combine sweetly on "Blame it on the Summer Night." The second act benefits, midway through, from "Three Sunny Rooms," sung by Rachel, Avram (Heller), Ben, and Bella. Just before the finale, it is Rebecca's solo of a haunting tune, "Children of the Wind," which rings with distinction.
The songs mentioned are just a sampling. This enriching show retains many memorable moments; it is replete with feeling and romance. Some might justifiably cite Rebecca's evolution as the prominent theme.
It would be neglectful not to mention the extraordinary set design by Michael Schweikardt. He has devised various mobile flats and set pieces as well as a number of backdrops. Luke Cantarella's projections, from the opening sequence and thereafter, add detail and scope. Those both familiar or less acquainted with the epoch will find the information welcome. Hence, the outer shaping of Rags is exemplary.
Rags is a collective triumph. One could utilize superlatives to describe virtually each cast member's performancewith justification. The new book keenly draws a focus upon both meaning and feeling. Director Ruggiero brings it all together, assisted by Michael O'Flaherty's musical direction and an excellent group of musicians in the orchestra pit. The resulting musical is both insightful and inspirational.
Rags continues at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut through December 10th, 2017. For tickets, call (860) 873-8668 or visit goodspeed.org.