"Rags," on stage now at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, boasts an impressive batch of creators. In addition to the book by Joseph Stein ("Fiddler on the Roof"), its music was composed by Charles Strouse ("Annie," "Bye Bye Birdie") and its lyrics written by Stephen Schwartz ("Godspell," "Pippin," "Wicked"). So it's surprising to learn that when it debuted on Broadway back in 1986, "Rags" lasted for only four performances, partially thanks to bloated production costs and an unfocused story. TheatreWorks debuted a revised version of "Rags" in 1989, which was a hit for the company. Judging by the standing ovation on opening night, its current version, directed by company Artistic Director Robert Kelley, looks to further redeem the show, letting it live up to its considerable potential.
At the end of "Fiddler on the Roof," theater fans will recall, protagonist Tevye and his family are forced to leave their ruined Ukrainian shtetl and, when the audience last glimpses them, are on their way to New York to start a new life in the New World.
"Rags" is not a sequel but is, in some ways, a natural follow up, showing the world in which Tevye and co., and millions like them, might have found themselves (and Stein's writing and characterizations in "Rags" do echo "Fiddler" at times).
Set in 1910, "Rags" follows Rebecca Hershkowitz (Kyra Miller), her young son David (Jonah Broscow, or Nic Roy Garcia in select performances) and some of their fellow Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Imperial Russia. As they're processed through Ellis Island, Rebecca and David meet Tevye-ish curmudgeon Avram (Donald Corren), his vivacious daughter Bella (Julie Benko) and charming Ben (Travis Leland), who has fallen for Bella over the course of the ship's voyage, much to Avram's chagrin. Rebecca is looking for her husband, Nathan, who left for America six years earlier, but in the meantime, new-friend Bella invites her and David to stay in the Lower East Side tenement she and Avram are sharing with relatives. Soon, Rebecca is settling into the harrowing-but-vibrant, culture-rich-but-impoverished neighborhood, with its blend of old traditions and new innovations like gramophones, which Ben gets a job hawking. Rebecca takes a sewing job in a sweatshop, where she encounters progressive Saul (Danny Rothman), who tries to convince the workers to unionize and fight for better conditions. Soon Saul is opening Rebecca's eyes to radical ideas, taking her to hear speakers like Emma Goldman and, in one memorable scene, to see a Yiddish version of "Hamlet." Rebecca and Saul develop deeper-than-comrade feelings, even as the return of long-lost Nathan (Noel Anthony), now a rising star in New York's corrupt Tammany Hall system, threatens to sever their bond. Meanwhile, Avram finds his own potential new love in fruit-vendor widow Rachel (Darlene Popovic), while Bella, still dreaming of a future in the Bronx with Ben, struggles to accept both the oppressive life under her father's thumb and the scorn and indignities heaped upon her by higher-class, uptown Americans. And when she takes a job in a notorious sweatshop, well, students of history will feel some foreshadowing.
Audiences may be confused by the near-identical title of "Ragtime," another, better-known musical set in the same time period, location and with some plot and character similarities, but "Rags" deserves its moment in the spotlight. The music, originally marketed as an American opera of sorts, is ambitious and excellent, with an appealing mix of swelling ballads, ragtime jazz and Klezmer. The TheatreWorks cast is uniformly outstanding as well, with strong voices and acting. One of many standouts is Benko as Bella, who passionately delivers the show's rousing title song. Corren, too, is wonderful as the dryly humorous Avram. And while the principals are all great, the ensemble players, who portray a range of characters from immigrants to Cossacks to socialites, give the production a solid foundation and help its world come to life. Set design by Joe Ragey, invoking the majesty of the Statue of Liberty, the crowded alleys of the Lower East Side and more, and costume design by Fumiko Bielefeldt, with the characters' costumes evolving from fresh-off-the-boat peasant garb and headscarves to more American-style duds, are of top-quality as well.
The journey of the Old World immigrant to the mean streets of New York is not an unfamiliar one. Some of the images and characterizations have become shorthand, almost cliche, as representations of "The Immigrant Experience." At times, "Rags" verges into over-obvious territory (a character proclaims, "these are exciting times!"), but it also serves as a reminder of why the stories of people like Rebecca are so important and compelling, as well as a reminder of just how much these millions of immigrants have contributed, and continue to contribute, to American culture.
The issue of immigration is, clearly, a topic that looms large in the present political climate; TheatreWorks' production offers a very natural and touching way of connecting the centuries-old story with today. "Rags" is a good old-fashioned musical with plenty to offer modern audiences.
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
When: Through April 30; see online for specific show dates and times
Info: Go to TheatreWorks.