Hope Mill Theatre’s 2019 production of Rags The Musical transfers to London’s Park Theatre under the direction of Bronagh Lagan. The Joseph Stein, Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz musical has a revised book by David Thompson, and the result is a very touching and heartfelt musical with political, cultural and religious impact.
It’s 1910 and the solitary musician on stage makes it feel like Rags could be picking up where Fiddler on The Roof left off. The floodgates have opened and immigrants from across the world are arriving at Ellis Island to find out just what the land of opportunity can offer them. Bella (Martha Kirby) has her father, Avram waiting for her, but Rebecca and her young son David have no waiting family, or the twenty-dollar alternative that will gain them access to the country.
Bella convinces Avram to pretend to be Rebecca’s uncle, but they must also convince the rest of the family to take Rebecca and David in. The fact that Rebecca is an excellent seamstress makes it an easy decision for the Jewish tailors who must turn out twelve dresses a day to satisfy the demands of Bronfman (Sam Attwater). Rebecca’s aspiration to be a successful dressmaker to the New York elite, represents how the American dream was sold, but Rags doesn’t shy away from the hardships either.
At its heart, Rags is a musical about people and the struggles they faced (and in many ways still face today). It takes an unflinching look at the anti-semitic sentiment which existed, and despite being a musical written in the eighties has all the hallmarks of our current political situation. It is, on the other hand a story of love; the love between family members firstly, but love between strangers too, the budding relationship between Bella and Ben (Oisin Nolan-Power) is particularly touching, while Rebecca’s heart is torn between the wealthy Bronfman and union agitator Sal (Alex Gibson-Giorgio).
With a slimmed down book from the original, it can still sometimes feel like there’s too much going on, while at other times you wish for a little more to be happening. The ups and downs of the script reflects the transitory nature of the immigrants, which is also highlighted in Gregor Donnelly’s simple but effective staging, mostly comprised of old suitcases.
As the characters of Rags face hope and devastation, the score soars and sweeps to match the mood. None of the songs are particularly memorable, and you would struggle to pick one which really stands out, but they are perfectly enjoyable in the moment, thanks to some genuinely impressive orchestrations from Nick Barstow. The stage is also filled with an ensemble of actor musicians who help to bring the score to life, while retaining a sense of intimacy in the space.
Carolyn Maitland gives a wonderfully accomplished performance as Rebecca, especially in her solo numbers, while Debbie Chazen and Jeremy Rose, as Anna and Jack, help to create a family feel. Dave Willetts as the overprotective Avram is a joy to watch, and in one scene lets out so much emotion it can’t fail to move the audience.
Rags The Musical may not have any moments of huge climax, but it succeeds in keeping the audience engaged throughout. The story is absorbing, and the score succeeds in complementing it rather than overpowering it, but it is the stellar cast who help Rags cast off its plainness and give it a hint of couture.