It seems no surprise from a read of the programme note that composer Charles Strouse wrote the music to RAGS before collaborator and lyricist Stephen Schwartz added in any lyrics. With a blend of old-school jazz, ragtime and moments of a recognisable Broadway twang, it feels like a mix of traditional Jewish musical motif and mega-spectacle American musical theatre. This assimilation of styles finds itself a bit of a lynchpin which literally underscores and threads its way throughout the plot and storytelling.
Rebecca (Carolyn Maitland) flees from anti-Jewish pogroms in early-20th century Russia with her son David, but not the 20 dollars or New York familial tie to be accepted into the country. Luckily for her, she befriends fellow traveller Bella (Martha Kirby) on her journey to America, who convinces her uncle, a Jewish dressmaker and shop owner, to take her and David in.
Despite the domestic warmth that essentially saves the lives of a mother and son, the word on the street is less than welcoming, and any sense of total safety feels absent with flags reading ‘No Dogs, No Jews’ brandished around the city. Love stories erupt from the music, as Bella falls for factory worker and aspiring pianist Ben (Oisin Nolan-Power). Rebecca meanwhile meets an Italian anarchist, and striking unionist forces attempt to dominate the sounds of the city streets.
With music being so integral to the culture of the show, the dusty old piano wheeled centre stage represents the wider urgency of hope at times of struggle, with music eliciting feelings of such hope. Not only does this feel integral to the plot, but a vital part of Jewish culture, the early 20th century seeing Yiddish motifs working their way into the sounds of Broadway.
It is not only assimilation of people but of music that marks its historical importance in the period. This is heightened by a secondary show that takes place within the main, a band of actor-musicians who have been craftily directed to feel absolutely whole and vital in this production. They are integral to the fabrics of the show, bringing the streets and souls to life, made up of Arthur Boan, Angela Ceasar, Drew Dillon and Natasha Karp.
RAGS opened on Broadway in the 1980s and appeared an instant failure, closing after only a few performances. The libretto has been regularly reworked over the years, and now focuses its original epic multi-narrative story on a central friendship between two immigrant Jewish women, and this certainly does a heap of favours for the musical. There’s a subtextual dynamic that develops between the two women and comes to life through song, and the show feels most successful when the two together are given their spotlight.
An example of a superb ensemble performance, there are many standout moments from the whole cast, notably Nolan-Power’s charm and charisma as Ben, ‘the schlepper’, and Rachel Izan’s sharp comic timing, which the audience quickly warm to. The song ‘Three Sunny Rooms’ is a personal highlight, as the chemistry between Izan and Dave Willetts’ Avram is effortlessly able to switch between flirtatious comedy to something much more sentimental.
Derek Anderson’s lighting design strikes and moves aptly with the story, cast against Gregor Donnelly’s towering set of stacked suitcases.
Despite the re-workings, the script still seems to rush through the key dramatic moments and doesn’t seem to reach a moment of heightened intensity that I think it demands. But, with an abundance of warmth, talent and good old fashioned Jewish humour (‘I like the chicken but I don’t carry it around with me’ sounded just like my grandfather!) – at a time of rising anti-Semitism and immigration crises – this production is certainly deserving of packed houses, in a visually dynamic and thoughtful revival by Bronagh Lagan.
RAGS The Musical is playing the Park Theatre until 8 February. For more information and tickets, visit the Park Theatre website.