Wednesday 15 January 2020

RAGS: The Musical @ The Park Theatre

RAGS: The Musical

When RAGS first opened on Broadway in 1986, with book from Joseph Stein, score from Charles Strouse, and lyrics from Stephen Schwartz, it ran for just four performances - yet still managed to receive a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical. Since then it's been revised numerous times, but didn't reach the UK until 2019 in a new version from David Thompson produced at Manchester's Hope Mill Theatre.

It's this version that's arrived at London's Park Theatre with a fresh cast, marking the musical's debut in the capital, once again directed by Bronagh Lagan in an accomplished production.

RAGS follows in the footsteps of Fiddler On The Roof with its focus on Jewish characters, here Russian immigrant Rebecca who arrives in New York City at the turn of the century with her son David. Together they struggle to assimilate into American culture and face prejudice outside their immediate Jewish community.

The immigration theme is a pertinent one to present day America, but more so the musical is an interrogation of the American Dream - exposing the xenophobia lurking behind a melting pot of cultures celebrated for their similarities and differences. In Adam Crossley and Matthew Gent's gaily dressed parading Americans we witness America in all its false glamour, in contrast to the heartwarming immigrant family at the narrative's core.

For a musical with such a downbeat subject, it is surprisingly humorous. There are cute romantic subplots and the cast are characterised by bumbling older men and pushy know-it-all women who are all lovably argumentative. It does, however, lend the musical a sheen of romance - beyond some shock moments, prejudice is largely kept in the background.

Strouse's score, likewise, struggles to assimilate. It combines elements of Yiddish traditions, jazz, ragtime and modern musicals, sometimes lurching between styles. The clash of cultures makes sense and there are some standout moments, but it doesn't quite coalesce. Including musicians on-stage, though, adds a welcome touch of colour and intimacy.

Gregor Donnelly's design uses suitcases to great effect, despite being a slightly trite representation of the characters' journey. And while the second half pulls emotional punches, it does err on schmaltzy melodrama. For all its hidden menace and serious themes, RAGS still relies on musical traditions and predictable love stories for tension.

What raises this production, though, is the quality of the cast. Performances throughout are polished, with exceptional singing and musicianship. From the bustling, sometimes dizzying, ensemble emerges Carolyn Maitland who leads the cast as the strong and determined Rebecca with warmth and a subtle soprano. Her rendition of 'Children of the Wind' at the climactic end ensures this production soars.


Watch: RAGS: The Musical runs at the Park Theatre until 8th February.

RAGS: The Musical

RAGS: The Musical
Photos: Pamela Raith