Danny Coleman- Cooke reviews Rags the musical which is playing at the Park Theatre London following a run at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre.
14 January 2020
The musical Rags has had more lives than cats (the animal, not the musical); it has been reworked so many times that it is almost unrecognisable from the show that closed after four performances on Broadway in 1986.
This newest iteration has transferred to London from Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, which is quickly gaining a formidable reputation for creative and exciting revivals of lesser-known musicals.
It tells the story of Russian Jewish immigrant Rebecca, who comes to New York along with her young son, penniless and without anywhere to live. Taken in by another Jewish family, she quickly thrives due to her ability to make glamorous dresses for customers in the wealthier Upside of town. However, she is forced to make difficult decisions about her identity and whether she wants to put her prosperity ahead of the people who took her in and gave her refuge.
None of this is particularly original; stories about the “American dream” and the immigrant melting pot have been a staple of US film, theatre and music for generations. However, it is certainly timely, at a moment when America is increasingly closing its doors to new arrivals, and where phrases like “go back to where you came from” regularly emanate from the Oval Office.
The score, just like the characters, represents a true melting pot, with influences ranging from Eastern European to jazz. It is vibrant and lively, and the refrain “Greenhorns”, was catchy enough to stay in my head days afterwards.
The script occasionally veers towards the schmaltzy and the saccharine but fortunately the performances are strong enough to cover any cracks.
Particular standouts were West End veteran Dave Willets as patriarch Avram, and Jeremy Rose as his brother Jack, who landed every one of their perfectly timed quips and asides in a way that made it look easy.
Carolyn Maitland was stellar as the protagonist Rebecca, whilst young lovers Ben (Oisin Nolan-Power) and Bella (Martha Kirby) had excellent chemistry and both possessed wonderful voices.
A very talented Klezmer band, well integrated into the ensemble, was a nice touch, while Gregor Donnelly’s clever set, using suitcases as backdrops and furniture, serves as a constant reminder of the transient and temporary life that faced many early immigrants.
Rags is a perennial work in progress, and it is not perfect in its current form. However, it is an aptly timed and brilliantly performed production of a musical that deserves to be better known.
Runs at Park Theatre until 8 February 2020.