Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Frankenstein

The Cast
Photo by Kevin Berne
Clutching their few belongings bound in tattered valises and holding tightly onto each other's hands with looks of mixed awe, anticipation and anxiety, a wave of America's latest immigrants push forward under the suspicious eyes of entry officials. Afar, Miss Liberty looks down, practically mouthing to them her engraved "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses," while one among them sings in his homesick-laced tenor, "Sometimes we don't love things until we tell them goodbye."

However contemporary this scenario might sound, the opening scene from Rags occurs at the 1910-1911 height of wave after wave of mostly poor immigrants—in this case Jewish refugees escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe—as hundreds of thousands crowd into New York's Lower East Side. The original 1986 musical—with book by Joseph Stein, music by Charles Strouse, and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz—was touted as a "grand opera" for the Great White Way; but even with a glorious score and a compelling story (and a number of later Tony nominations), it was a huge flop, closing only after four performances post its opening night.

Soon thereafter, along came a little company in Palo Alto called TheatreWorks that staged a version of Rags in 1989 that both helped establish the company's national reputation and sent the musical on a long journey of periodic revisions and revivals to keep alive this story of America's history that still speaks of all our histories. And now, under the inspired, heart-felt direction of Robert Kelley, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley revives nearly thirty years later its latest rendition of Rags—one that is truly epic in its opera-like breadth and depth and yet one that is grippingly personal in its focus on the individual immigrant experience.

Among the immigrants spilling into the peddler-filled streets of Delancy, Suffolk, and Hester are Rebecca Hershkowitz and her young son David. They desperately look for but do not find a husband, Nathan, who had preceded them to America by several years. Rescuing them from being sent back to the fires of Russian Cossacks is late-teen Bella Cohen and her aging, Hasidic-clad father Avram. Into their crowded tenement the just-arrived move, soon to be caught in the terror and excitement of history in the making all around them—all in the name of survival and eventual assimilation. New jobs in seamstress sweat shops, rallies and riots for workers' rights, hilarious Yiddish theatre versions of plays by some guy named Shakespeare, and eager young men showing up on the doorstep to woo with newly learned words and highly inflated (but sincerely believed) promises—these and more experiences await Rebecca and the thousands of others arriving in New York each year.

Also awaiting the likes of Rebecca are those out to "get them while they're green," as two Americans in linen white sing in ragtime beat and step ("Greenhorns"), offering deals too good to be true to people who do not yet understand the language or the land. There are also street bosses wanting payoffs, Tammany Hall politicos with their dirty and rough-nosed tricks to get new immigrant votes, and street gangs of past immigrants (e.g., Irish, Italian) ready to bust up any sign of the new immigrants (e.g., Jewish) wanting to take over their staked territories of jobs and power.

This entire spectrum of sights and sounds populates the canvas on which Rags paints a picture of the turn-of-the-century immigrant experience—a panorama also filled with the sounds of emerging jazz, old-country klezmer, toe-tapping Tin Pan Alley, heart-throbbing blues, and of course, syncopated ragtime.

At the center of this sometimes fascinating whirlwind, sometimes terrifying maelstrom of new immigrant experiences is Rebecca, played in stunning, award-worthy fashion by Kyra Miller. Each times she steps forward to tell Rebecca's story in song, Ms. Miller brings a voice floating with lyrical, aria quality and grounded in soulful, stirring roots. When she describes a memory of escaping Cossack invasion ("Children of the Wind"), her sung narrative reverberates with emotion-filled tension and determination, and notes crystal clear in their long sustains. When trying to reconcile a lover's kiss stolen in a moment of surprise, she performs—with cheeks aglow and eyes with such sparkle as to dazzle—a duet with a faraway clarinet in "Blame It on the Summer Night," bringing a passion and a sound that could be from a love song of Porgy and Bess. Rebecca and her son David—Jonah Broscow who brings a fresh, exciting voice and a big stage presence far outstretching his young age and diminutive size—sing about a "Brave New World" with voices tingling with wonder and exhilaration: "And the air here is all loaded with smells, it's such a feeling, reeling ... We may be lost and stranded but we're part of a brand new world."

Into Rebecca's and David's lives come a variety of characters—those who will become with them like a family, someone who wants to be family, and someone who is in fact family. Old Avram and daughter Bella join Rebecca in singing the rousing title song, "Rags"—a number Julie Benko as Bella particularly shines as she exclaims her immigrant impatience in a voice refreshing with its exuberance and energy: "Rags, I live in rags ... Hags, we turn to hags ... sewing buttons on rags."

As Avram, Donald Corren constantly displays the father's old-country, more orthodox leanings that he stubbornly holds onto in this new world of young, Jewish men no longer wearing hats or saying their daily prayers. But as the pot-and-towel tinker gets to know a fruit cart vendor (and widow) named Rachel (played with delightful spark and contagiously likeable vocals by Darlene Popovic), Avram starts to have an extra kick in his old step. The two provide one of the evening's highlights, among the show's many stellar moments, when they sing a duet (accompanied by a rascally clarinet) about perhaps sharing "Three Sunny Rooms" together—but only after much back and forth, hilarious pushing by Rachel, and hemming and hawing by Avram.

Aspiring to be a more permanent fixture in the lives of Rebecca and David is a firebrand and union organizer, Saul. Danny Rothman's Saul bursts with zeal for reform, melts with kindness to fatherless David, and both spars with and swoons over a Rebecca who is not too sure she wants his rabble-rousing kind around. The three banter and bicker in "Easy for You," in which adult fingers point accusingly at each other with voices on edge. However, the slight smiles and momentarily locked eyes between Saul and Rebecca set up a later reflective duet ("Wanting") in which each contemplates in heart-gripping solos and harmonic duet the feelings that run deep between them.

Into Rebecca's life will finally appear a long-ago-arranged husband, now a handlebar-mustached, would-be politician in pinstripe suit and on the make with Tammany Hall pols. ("I make people like me ... In America, that's called politics.") Noel Anthony is the brash, dominating husband who tries to convince his wife in "Uptown" that it is time to leave her Lower East Side far behind. Mr. Anthony brings a boisterous, trumpeting voice to songs like "Yankee Boy," as does David Bryant as Big Tim Sullivan, the big boss Nathan is sucking up to, to become Big Tim's ward thug among Nathan's fellow Jews. Both Messieurs Anthony and Bryant, in their bombastic, bully tendencies (and "What's Wrong with That?"), belt their notes in sudden spurts of hyperbolic fashion, sometimes to the point of over-singing and going just a bit flat (something that can easily be corrected as the run progresses).

Each member of this cast of fifteen has a moment to shine in the spotlight, bringing singular and collective voices and wonderfully idiosyncratic personalities to their parts (many playing multiple roles). Particularly outstanding among the others not yet mentioned is Travis Leland as Ben, a gramophone salesman who pushes his new trade with almost as much zest and zeal as he does his attraction to Bella. His beautiful Jewish tenor joins a recorded Irish tenor (Benjamin Pither) after he winds up the gramophone to play and sing "For My Mary," a number that delights those gathered on stage and all of us listening from the audience.

The music that soars and shines throughout this sensational score is made all the more magnificent through the musical direction of William Liberatore as he conducts both singers and an orchestra of ten. The monumental scope of the story is fully supported and much enhanced by a multi-level, on-the-move set design by Joe Ragey that captures the feeling of dark, crowded tenement streets, apartments and factories as well as the electric excitement of a city full of lights, avenues, and bustling adventure. The sets are given their full due through the lighting design of Pamila Z. Gray; and the sounds of a turn-of-the-century city are authentically reproduced through the inventive skills of Jeff Mockus.

As she always does, Fumiko Bielefeldt has outdone herself in creating an era through costumes that define the people as unique individuals and as notable representatives of a long-past generation. The dances of the times—both American and those brought from Eastern Europe—have been masterfully choreographed by Dottie Lester White and add much fun and eye-popping value to the evening.

There are not adjectives enough to describe the heart and genius Robert Kelley has brought to his direction of this big, complex musical that flows on the stage in a stream of scenes that never pause, never confuse, never falter. But it is his insight to include a surprise element at the musical's climax that speaks to the master he truly is of overall design and message. That this is a story over one hundred years old may be true, but that it still rings with contemporary relevance—now more than ever—becomes strikingly clear by a director's subtle touch. A sustained, standing ovation is well due the director, this cast, and the entire creative team for a Rags that sings and soars of yesterday's America, for today's America.

Rags continues through April 30, 2017, at at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. Tickets are available online at or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday, Noon - 6 p.m.