The Walnut Street Theatre opens its 2000-2001 season with the musical "Rags" featuring a book by Joseph Stein, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. The Tony award-winning trio of authors recently reunited to work on "Rags" once again for its Walnut run. "Rags continues to be a living organism", Schwartz said of his willingness to keep improving the show. "The Walnut Street production will probably be the definitive one", Stein said to Maria Sticco, Walnut's Marketing Director, in a recent interview.
This in mind and with the finished product now up and running, this might just be "the production" to see. For Charles Strouse's beautiful music is filled with all the ethnic colors of a young immigrant America in the infant years of the 20th Century. The score is as lovely and diverse as an antique patchwork quiltfor the composer has drawn from an eclectic palate of Jewish Klezmer sounds, Ragtime, Tin Pan Alley and Musical Comedy. There are songs from this show that have been floating around for years, such as "Wanting", "Blame It on the Summer Night" and "Children of the Wind" But music constitutes only one half of a theatre song and to Mr. Schwartz's credit, his lyrics are always clear and compelling; funny and charming when needed and dramatically touching where called for.
Interwoven in a clever tapestry are three stories of the Jewish immigrant experience in America. The first is that of Rebecca and her young son, David, who arrive on Ellis Island alone and penniless. Her husband, Nathan, who has preceded them to this country, doesn't meet them at the boat. Rebecca is forced to go to work in a sweat shop while searching for her errant husband. She befriends Saul, a union organizer who convinces her to learn English and raises her consciousness about unfair working conditions. Simultaneously, Saul and Rebecca are attracted to one another. The second story conerns Bella and Ben, a young ambitious entrepreuner. Ben wants to marry Bella, but her father, Avrum, objects and keeps Bella hidden away at home. Bella rebels and on her own initiative gets a job sewing piece work like Rebecca in a factory. Then there is the older Avrum and Rachel. A widowed Avrum sells housewares from a push cart on the street. Rachel sells fruit from hers as she pitches woo to Avrum.
The cast couldn't be better. Betsi Morrison sings her heart out as Rebecca. Mary Kate McGrath as the soubrette, Bella, belts the theme song, "Rags" to the rafters. Michael Brian as Nathan with his dynamic tenor voice is unctuous charm supreme. Jeffrey Coon, once again (maybe I should start a fan club), is adorable perfection when he sings, "For My Mary" in the role of Ben. Mollie Hall (his no less adorable wife) shines in her few moments as Rosa. And Connie Nelson and Bruce Winant almost steal the show as they sing, "Three Sunny Rooms" to each other, a comically poignant moment reminiscent of "A Pineapple for You" from "Cabaret"
Director Bruce Lumpkin again makes use of multi-level playing areas that help us to feel that we are in the self-contained world of the poor, gritty, Lower East Side in old New York. The sets and costumes work in tandem with this vision, giving the play a somewhat dark and textured appeal. Mr. Lumpkin's lively paced, almost cinematic approach manages to make all three stories seem homogenous as the show literally flows as if from a melting pot (if you will) into one effortless form.
My only reservation is that I found myself caring more about the minor characters (Ben and Bella and Avrum and Rachel) than the major ones. Perhaps this is because we do not meet the assimilated Nathan until fairly well into the show. We might be more likely to root for the romance between Rebecca and Saul if we saw Rebecca being neglected and mistreated by Nathan intead of him merely being in abstentia. But this consideration aside, it is still a very compelling evening of theatre, beautifully staged and and beautifully sung.
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