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"Rags" becomes riches at Blackfriars 

Ragswas a legendary Broadway flop. Starring opera diva Teresa Stratas, it had alot going for it. It was based on a bookabout Jewish immigrants by Joseph Stein, who wrote Fiddler on the Roof.It had music by Eastman School alumnus Charles Strouse, who composed operas and shows like Annie and Bye, Bye Birdie.It had lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the songs for Godspell and Pippin. It closed after four performances.

            The "Original Broadway Cast Recording" was a best-seller, though it had few members of the original Broadway cast. Blackfriars' artistic director, John Haldoupis, fell in love with the score on the recording, "which led to a highly regarded concert reading at the JCC in 1993," he recalls. Now, Haldoupis is pleased to present a fully staged production with his longtime friend, Herb Katz, JCC's Artistic Director, in the role of Avram Cohen. This revival is something of an event.

            Haldoupis has designed complex sets that avoid the stagy and pretty: They're so flavorful, they even seem to emit the odor of Manhattan's Lower East Side. Lana Momano's realistic costumes make sharp distinction between the poor immigrants and the occasional Uptown swells we see. Cara D'Emanuele brings not only first-rate musical direction to the production, but acts the lead role of Rebecca with charm and power, and sings it superbly, in a strong, beautiful soprano. Hers is not only the lead performance, but a heroic one.

            Herb Katz is ideally cast as the traditional Jewish refugee papa, Avram, who's somewhat clueless, but emotionally wrenching in his devotion to his young daughter. No one else could get so much character and humor into a simple line as Katz does when a canny little boy ups the price for merchandise Avram is trying to sell, and Avram assures the doubting customer, "I work for him." Ten-year-old Clay Thomson is remarkable as the boy, but needs work on diction. It's hard to believe that Pamela Good, one of our best and most experienced local singers and actresses, hasn't performed in a Blackfriars musical before this, but she's irreplaceable as Rachel, a widow who pursues Avram. Good and Katz make an inevitable team.

            Other valuable contributors to this fine ensemble effort are strong-voiced Peter Doyle, as Rebecca's commanding husband, Nathan; Ronald S. Herman, as the rabble-rousing activist, Saul; Patrick Butler Jr., as the struggling young lover, Ben; and, especially, Erin Koch, vocally and visually beautiful and heartbreakingly moving as Avram's young daughter, Bella.

            Stein's wide-ranging book includes the dark side of Jewish refugee life in America: sweat shops, exploitation, discrimination, violence. Rebecca's husband Nathan betrays another side of "the land of milk and honey" --- he wants to change their name from Hershkowitz to Harris and escape Uptown, away from their traditions and friends. He's even involved with the goons who attack the "low class Yids" who want a union. Nothing is presented coolly. This is a show of and about big emotions.

            I find little in this impressive production to fault. Meggins Kelly's choreography is inchoate, at best, but there's not much need for dance in this presentational music drama. I did miss the great curtain and the Opera Quiz during intermission. And there are no Texaco commercials. But no one within a radius of hundreds of miles is going to perform Rags better.

Rags,bookby Joseph Stein, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, plays at Blackfriars Theatre, 28 Lawn Street, through Saturday, May 24. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sunday, May 18, at 3 p.m. Tix: $20-$22. 454-1260, www.blackfriars.org.

Speaking of Rags, Blackfriars Theatre

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