Rags the Musical in Concert was performed at the Lyric Theatre, London on 28 April for one night only.
What musical could be more appropriate than Rags, the story of the Jewish immigrants who travelled to New York at the start of the last century and their dream of being assimilated into a brave new world, as a show to benefit Centrepoint, the UK’s leading charity for homeless young people.
Pared down to well under two hours in a shortened version for which Maureen Lipman, as narrator, filled in the gaps from her lofty perch in one of the Lyric Theatre boxes, this one-off reincarnation of the 1986 Broadway flop which ran for just 18 previews and four performances was billed as a concert version but, in fact, was far more than that because there was plenty of action and some energetic dancing too.
Rags has become a cult musical, its CD much played and admired, and why it flopped considering its blue-ribbon pedigree – lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked, The Baker’s Wife, Pippin), music by Charles Strouse (Annie, Bye Bye Birdie), book by Joe Stein (Fiddler On the Roof, Zorba) – is a bit of a mystery since the music itself is lovely.
But the New York Times hated it and despite audiences walking down Broadway in support of the protesting cast when Rags was pulled so hastily out of the firing line, efforts to save it failed when no more money was forthcoming.
Maybe it is a bit too preachy with too many strands to follow and engage with, too many questions unanswered, but with songs as powerful as ‘Children of the Wind’, as touching as the ‘Three Sunny Rooms’ duet between the two oldies Avran (Matt Zimmerman) and Rachel (a superb Jenny Logan) as the widow determined to have him, and lines as clever as upwardly-mobile Nat’s explanation of why he’s forsaking his Jewish origins (“No one likes to kiss an ass/But I can’t live second class”), there is much to relish.
Even anti-Semitism is amusingly treated in Irish boss Big Tim Sullivan’s song ‘What’s Wrong With That?’ (excellently performed by Ben Stock) and there’s more humour in a play-within-a-play, a Jewish version of Hamlet. However, the main thrust of the piece is essentially very serious with the heroine, Rebecca Hershkowitz, escaping from Russia with her young son David to find husband Nat (formerly Nathan) who has gone ahead in search of a better life.
Caroline Sheen’s powerful voice as Rebecca, most notably in ‘Children of the Wind’, the defining song of Act I that is welcomely reprised as a finale, was a total joy, but her characterisation and accent were underdeveloped, and it was hard to believe from the cultured way she spoke that her new admirer, union organiser Saul, felt the way to improve herself was to have English lessons at night classes.
We get all sorts of musical genres, Kletzmer, jazz, ragtime, European, Middle Eastern, folk, Greek, Broadway, even pop with the catchy ‘Penny a Tune’, in this rich tapestry.
As composer Strouse wrote: “Rags was my tribute to the time when American jazz was born. There would have been no Scott Joplin, no Fred Astaire, no Irving Berlin or Beatles without America’s so-called melting pot of Irish and Black, German and Hungarian, Italian, Russian, Jew and Scot – all busy yelling, selling pots and fabrics, cleaning up the streets and sewing in factories – out of which came tap dancing, clog dancing, the mix of Klezmer and Slavic music and with them the off-beats of jazz, rock and rap.”
Considering what must have been a relatively short rehearsal time, this was a terrific effort produced by the multi-talented Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment and Matthew Hopton for Knockhardy Productions, with Bronagh Lagan as director and choreography by Grant Murphy. All credit to them and a cause clearly close to their hearts.
The singing was a treat with Sheen, Tim Rogers (Saul), Leila Ben Harris and James Yeoburn (as Bella and Ben in a subsidiary romance), the aforementioned Zimmerman and Logan (both delightful) and Graham MacDuff (Nat) all hard to fault.
And a special mention to young Sebastian Croft as David, a lad who sings for fun (and in tune), has bags of confidence and looks set for a big future.
The acting, however, was inevitably a mixed bag with some parts better developed than others and the balance between the 11-strong band, under MD Caroline Humphris, and the singers not always on the money.
And for £6 the programme should certainly have found space to list the songs and give a short history of this chequered musical. Overall, though, an evening well spent and a show well worth discovering.
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