Goodspeed Opera House
Goodspeed Opera House is currently presenting a radically revised production of the musical “Rags.” With music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, and a book by Joseph Stein, “Rags” originally opened on Broadway in August 1986 and closed after only four performances. This musical has had a life, though, based on the high quality of its score, lovingly preserved on a cast album CD, released in 1991. Indeed, I saw a fine revival of “Rags” in 1999 at Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey, which featured many revisions to the original book and score.
However, the changes that have been made to “Rags” at Goodspeed Opera House are nearly unprecedented: truth to tell, to anyone at all familiar with this show, this “Rags” almost plays like an entirely new musical. The book has been revised by David Thompson and the score has been restructured, with many new lyrics, some songs added, and numbers reassigned to other characters. For those, like myself, who know the original show and score, the results can be initially jarring.
Still, the happy news to report about “Rags” at Goodspeed Opera House is that this new incarnation of this show is often enjoyable and, ultimately, moving, once you are able to get past all the changes to the original. Whether this version of the musical is necessarily better than previous productions of the show is hard to say. Suffice it is to mention, though, that “Rags” at Goodspeed Opera House is most certainly worth seeing.
Director Rob Ruggiero is at the helm of this production and he has done a near Herculean job in reshaping and refining the original material of the musical. For those who know the story of “Rags,” it still features the character of Rebecca Hershkowitz (beautifully played by Samantha Massell) bringing her young son David to Ellis Island in 1910 in hopes of carving out a new and a better life. After this initial scene, however, the plot goes off in different directions, adding new characters and getting rid of previous ones (most notably Rebecca’s husband Nathan, whom she is supposed to find in America, in the original version of the show).
The list of changes to “Rags,” including many of its songs, is almost innumerable to mention. It is actually better to treat this “Rags” as an entirely new musical. On those terms, this production offers many rewards, including a splendid cast and a generally handsome production. The show begins on a boat to America, with Rebecca and her son meeting a young woman, Bella. Rebecca and Bella (touchingly portrayed by Sara Kapner) share a lovely duet, “If We Never Meet Again,” which is actually a cut number from the show, but it works as a good opening song for this particular production.
The rest of the score has been reordered and rewritten (by the original songwriters), though the creators have been wise enough to retain such gorgeous songs as “Brand New World,” “Blame It on the Summer Night,” and the searing title number, which concludes the first act. Also remaining are the charming “Three Sunny Rooms,” “Bread and Freedom,” and, most crucially, “Children of the Wind,” which is the next to closing anthem powerfully performed by Samantha Massell’s Rebecca.
Other performers who shine in “Rags” include Christian Michael Camporin as David and Adam Heller in the role of Bella’s father Avram (a character seemingly modeled on Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof,” a part which Heller actually performed on the Goodspeed Opera House stage recently, to stunning effect). Also doing well are the handsome Sean MacLaughlin as Sal Russo and the terrific David Harris manages to brighten things up in the rather unsympathetic role of Max Bronfman. The moving Nathan Salstone is excellent as Bella’s suitor and Emily Zacharias, Mitch Greenberg, and Lori Wilner, representing the older generation, are all definite assets to the production.
Director Rob Ruggiero works wonderfully with his designers, Michael Schweikardt (sets), Linda Cho (costumes), John Lasiter (lighting), and, particularly, Luke Cantarella, who provides the vivid projection design. The orchestra sounds great under the musical direction of Michael O’Flaherty and Parker Esse’s choreography works well, when needed.
“Rags” at Goodspeed Opera House will probably work the best to those who are unfamiliar with the original show and score (it is actually recommended that you keep from listening to the cast album CD right before attending the show). For theatergoers, like me, who know “Rags” well, this new production takes some time to get used to. But, taken on its own terms, “Rags” at Goodspeed Opera House has riches to offer and I saw more than a few teary-eyed audience members at the conclusion of the performance I attended. In essence, “Rags” is a show that deserves to be experienced.
“Rags” continues performances at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT through December 10, 2017. For tickets, please visit www.goodspeed.org or call the box office at 860-873-8668.
Photo: (L-R): Sean MacLaughlin, Samatha Massell, and Christian Michael Camporin
Photo by Diane Sobolewksi