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Rags and Rags Parkland...
Reviews by Rob Lester

While the future of live theatre mainly remains on pause mode, we can console ourselves with recordings representing its past—distant or of closer vintage. In the case of the heavily revised 1986 musical about immigrants, Rags, it's both. Its action set in 1910 is closer to our current decade than the imagined perspective of life in the middle of the 23rd century, the time-stamped placement for the proceedings in Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future, which had a run in 2018.

Ghostlight Records

CD | mp3 | iTunes

A famous old bit of advice encouraging optimistic determination—"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again"—was subscribed to by the creators of the musical Rags in 1986. Although built by musical theatre royalty (Charles Strouse as composer, Stephen Schwartz supplying lyrics, and book by Joseph Stein), the moving tale of Jewish immigrants moving into Manhattan's Lower East Side neighborhood was sent packing on Broadway after just four post-preview performances. But this "disappearing act" was not a final death knell, and it's as if these writers and some producers had the patient resolve similar to that of the Rags characters who resolutely faced their own challenges for success and acceptance.

Multiple changes over the years for numerous presentations—minor tweaks and major surgeries—made the story work better and become leaner, with bookwriter David Thompson taking over for Stein, who died in 2010. Rags was mounted in England twice, with the London company that bowed this past January heard to good advantage on Ghostlight Records' 2020 cast recording. Its 28 tracks provide a bounty of committed renditions full of polish and vitality, with a solid cast and attractive instrumental work by the five-member band led by pianist John Bunker, along with the quartet of klezmer musicians (who do double duty with roles in the ensemble). New orchestrations are by Nick Barstow, with studio co-producer credit. (Joe and Nikki Davison are producers, with lyricist Schwartz overseeing as executive producer of what we're gratefully hearing).

In its post-Broadway revisions, Rags has had more emphasis on one leading role: resilient Rebecca, a new New York arrival, on whose shoulders is placed much of the Strouse/Schwartz score to carry. And carry it off with skill and grace golden-voiced Carolyn Maitland does. Her plum role is all the juicier with the intense title song now being reassigned largely to her character, with quite a bit less given to the secondary female role, Bella (who in the original Broadway version, growled the lioness' share in what was then a daughter/father duet). This powerful piece that originally ended in dramatic but downbeat/defeatist mode (reacting to the privileged, prejudiced class: "...I want to scream 'I'm the same as you,'/ But it isn't true/ I'm just one more Jew/ In her rags") now is extended to promise upcoming triumphs and overcoming obstacles when "Our lives won't be tossed away/ Like these rags."

What's employed musically to weave the saga of those employed mostly in the garment business is a consciously period pallette that draws from: infectious ragtime (giving the show's title its double meaning); rallying cries; and conspicuous musical theatre traditions, as well as trading on ethnic trademarks. Unlike the idealized "melting pot" goal relevant to the plot's people, the musical elements retain their starkly different identities. The outlier is an effective and respectful moment when, in different locations and by different groups, age-old prayers of two religions are intoned simultaneously. What's most prominent in the sounds of Rags is an earned earnestness that, if not treated with care, could sink with any added weight of woe-is-me angst or pat platitudes of perseverance.

Fortunately, the singing and accompaniment figures generally avoid a tendency to overplay drama in a way that would feel cliche. Some may still see the strokes as too broad, finding themselves resistant to musical statements that veer into the territory of heroic anthems or power ballads. The dignified "Children of the Wind" is the sweepingly grand item tasked to checking all these boxes: empowerment, inspiration, being uplifting. In contrast to the pieces replete with gravity and uber-sincerity, some attempts to lighten the mood with humor might come off as trying too hard. However, the comic relief is welcome and wise, certainly delivering charm and cheer. (OK, so it's a stretch to accept as realistic the oh-so-merry manner in which sweatshop toilers chirp about "The Fabric of America." It brings new meaning to the advice of "Never let 'em see you sweat.") Successfully doing the heavy lifting to secure lighthearted delights is Oisin Nolan-Power as sweet, upbeat Ben (a wannabe tunesmith), endearing when serenading his crush, Bella.

Those who know the score strictly from its only other audio documentation—a CD released five years after the show's brief moment in the New York sun, but with almost all the Broadway cast—will hear material changes in the material. Owing to changes in plot or intended impact, the "batting order" of pieces has been adjusted in a few spots. It's a case of something old (some things, in fact, left fully intact), something new (intriguing and welcome additions, like "Edge of a Knife" and altered or expanded lyrics), something borrowed (songs in whole or part now assigned to other characters; a recycled melody), and something with a belated "debut" (numbers performed in the original, but not included on the 1991 album). And, yes, some 1986 songs are M.I.A. completely, as are some characters—such as the real-life entertainer Sophie Tucker and, most notably, the husband of Rebecca, who is now a widow rather than a lady arriving at New York's harbor looking forward to reuniting with the spouse, her child's dad, who came to America before her. Fortunately, not all that the husband had sung has died with him; it's been inherited by others. One example is the rosy picture projected of life "Uptown." It gets not only gets some gleeful extra words, but also a different, darker color as now mainly the property of the manipulative factory owner played with fierce power—if not entirely subtle lurking menace—by Sam Attwater.

Valiantly embodying the diverse folks in Rags, the company's teamwork shines, with striking solo moments particularly for estimable Martha Kirby as Bella, Dave Willetts as her father Avram, and Alex Gibson-Giorgio as Sal, the Italian neighbor we meet first in "Meet an Italian," broad but fond (some may say forced) humor trotting out stereotypes. And, with sly skill very evident despite just one spot-on spotlight turn within a piece shared with three others ("Three Sunny Rooms"), Rachel Izen scores memorably as an older lady who shares her own first name.

With an eye on the positive and possibilities, while not shying away from life's ugly truths like prejudice and greed, I have long found the world-weary world of Rags an interesting musical place to visit. And I'm glad its inventors have been intent on revisiting it. This radiant recording captures this most recent reshaping of a life-affirming project well deserving its afterlife.


Broadway Records
CD | mp3 | iTunes

And now for something completely different...

Creator Andrew R. Butler blends a science-fiction, backstory-heavy plot infused with socio-political sensibilities for something both quirky and disquieting. It's time to time-travel. Fast-forward yourself many decades, when the music in the air often sounds contrastingly antique even by 2020's perspective: plenty of old-timey pre-rock styles. Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of The Future is odd, but, in its best moments, oddly compelling if you're willing to buy into it and go along for the ride. Don't expect traditional musical theatre in presentation with an episodic plot unfolding before you. Songs don't serve the typical function of being interacting characters' musicalized dialogue (or an individual's sung monologue) flowing in present tense/real time as emotions or opinions first burst forth. Instead, the conceit of the show is that songs are announced to be pre-existing compositions being performed as parts of a couple of live concerts by experienced musicians.

We're clued into the double-duty of the title by noting that The Future is the name of the band at the center of the story. Multi-tasker Butler not only stars as Rags, truth-telling troubadour, but plays three instruments (guitar, banjo, and harmonica), conceived the project, and wrote book and songs (sharing credit for arrangements, orchestrations, and additional music with music director Madeline Smith, Maya Sharp, and the five people who are singers and/or musicians appearing on stage as members of The Future). Prominently featured is the versatile-voiced Stacey Sargeant, the only one who doesn't play an instrument. Her rich and nuanced singing voice, filled with pathos, is a huge asset. The others in the tight little ensemble are Rick Burkhardt (accordion and vocals), Debbie Christine Tjong (bass and vocals), Tony Jarvis (bass clarinet and tenor sax), and Jessie Linden (drums).

Occasional brief spoken song set-ups, exposition in lyrics, and liner notes give a fair amount of context. More can be pieced together by the combined breadcrumbs of attentive listening, luckier guesswork, or (recommended) reading up on the show. Of course, that's assuming you didn't catch it live in Manhattan during its run of several weeks two autumns ago at Ars Nova, a concert night at Feinstein's/54 Below, earlier incarnations of what began a decade ago as a solo piece, or the online CD release with commentary.

To give the uninitiated a few key elements of the who/what/when/where/why, here goes: If you think our world is burdened and bleak now, imagine living where persecuted cyborgs are among the folks you know (although you might not know how hybrid they are), when survival and freedom face ever more dire fates, censorship is harsh, and how you might have been banished for a spell to a penal colony far away (on Mars!). That last experience is what happened to our outspoken rebel hero, Rags, who also pines for his beloved, the talented Beaux (Miss Sargeant) of the banned band. (By the way, he's the sole biologically fully human one in the group.) Yup, it's complicated.

Rags Parkland ... is adventurous and original, though it may qualify as an acquired taste. It doesn't sound like even a distant cousin of your usual musical theatre cast album, golden age or contemporary. Digging the material and digging into it may be most obstacle-free for those who share a fondness/perspective/curiosity when it comes to protest songs, folk music / blues with an agenda, or lyric-dense sagas with spare melodic architectures. Sometimes the mission seems to be to intently (and intensely) sound an alarm or bemoan fates, resulting in raw-voiced rants. In the numerous pieces that are his solos, we hear the Butler vocal presentation and strumming suggesting an untrained vocalist, unpretentious and unpolished, unapologetically more focused on delivering the provocative meat of the message.

Those who find it maddening when a short lyric line is repeated over and over and over again will have their patience tested on several selections. Those who share my pet peeve about songs that mix perfect rhymes with near-rhyming options may bristle. However, these mentioned aspects have long been commonplace in material of the genres pastiched. We can respectfully or begrudgingly admire the craft in constructing these tongue-in-cheek things that share DNA with their musical ancestors, like "Android Love Song," and "Talkin' Mars Dust Blues."

There's more than meets the ear here. It's not merely esoteric meanderings through a detailed nerdy overactive imagination drawn from a well of Orwellian model. The whining and opining, the quirky and the caustic are not merely diverting as effective escapist fare annotating likable but unlikely stuff. Butler's ace in the hole is playing the connection card of Relevance. Theatre that spurs thought and songs that fuel feelings happen when the specifics lead to universalities and we relate. Much content here is cautionary, blatant, or cleverly veiled. The name-dropping of Biblical characters and other notables make for a clear "history will repeat itself" warning in "Delilah in the Rubble" and "Apple in the Sky." Elsewhere, we can swap particulars in calls to action, the calling out of unfairness, and the speaking up for the oppressed can speak volumes. There's a ray of sunshine amid much doom when attention turns tenderly to romance for the doting duet "Love You Good." This one, deftly crooned, lets Beaux and Rags equate their complementary status to honey in tea, but not before the more unsettling comparison of their match to the perfect fit of a pistol in one's hand.

Open-minded listeners may find food for thought in the far-off era created in the far-out Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future

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