Victor Cordell

Performing Arts Reviews

Rags

 

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Kyra Miller as Rebecca, Jonah Broscow as David, Donald Corren as Avram, Julie Benko as Bella.

A history lesson – not fully learned

The era of massive immigration by non-English speakers and the rise of unionism in the United States in the early 1900s sadly drifts into distant memory as time marches on. The musical Rags celebrates that time and reminds us of the lessons to be learned from history. It is a glorious paean to freedom and opportunity tinged with hard knocks reality.

Refugees from Eastern Europe travel by boat to the United States to seek a new start in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's production of "Rags," a musical saga of immigrant America. The show is presented at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts April 8 through April 30, 2017. (Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks Silicon Valley)

Cast arriving at immigration in Ellis Island.

The story centers on Rebecca, played earnestly by richly-voiced soprano, Kyra Miller. A Jewish victim of Russian pogroms, she escapes to the United States with her son and hopes to find her husband who came to America several years earlier. Needing to earn her way, she becomes a seamstress in the rag trade at a time when working conditions were unregulated and deplorable. Regrettably, those conditions exist today not only in the world’s poorest countries, but in some American industries that rely on vulnerable and frightened illegal immigrant labor. The sympathies of the creators of Rags ring clear, but sadly, society’s view of labor unions is largely unfavorable today, and the contributions they made to gain decent wages and working conditions for many Americans are underappreciated.

In conflating the themes of search and survival in a new world, numerous subplots arise. While trying to learn of her husband Nathan’s whereabouts, Rebecca establishes a warm but conflicted relationship with Saul, a secular Jew and firebrand union organizer. Saul is encouraging women in the garment industry to strike for better conditions, but Rebecca cannot afford to lose the wages. She wants to avoid the pain associated with the labor struggle, and pleads that she didn’t come to a new country to get hurt. Inevitably, hurt would come from discrimination that the lower east side Jews received from the uptown Gentiles. And as history tells us, many tragedies resulted from the dangers in the garment factories before regulations protected workers.

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Saul and Rebecca’s son David getting to know one another.

Other clashes that confront these new immigrants concern merging into a new culture with more modern ways. First is the notion of assimilation. In the setting of the play, an adult learning English is optional. As Rebecca notes, she could spend the rest of her life in her neighborhood and never hear English. Rebecca’s young friend Bella reveals an inconsistency about the notion of modern freedom. Although rejecting the idea of divorce and remarriage that she observes in the new country, she rebels against the old world tradition of following the father’s orders even as a young adult, and she insists on the independence of working for living and choosing her own boyfriend. On another note about integrating into the new country, what about those names that are hard for Americans to pronounce or that sound very – Jewish?

Although the storyline touches on many worthy social and moral issues, absence of focus for total emotional involvement. A lively and eclectic score supports the story and adds to the feel of the period and the characterization of the place and people. Klezmer music that was brought from Eastern Europe dominates, complemented by American genres that were prevalent at the time – jazz, ragtime, and pop. The music appeals and lyrics carry strong messages, but the score wants for a signature song to hum on the way to the car.

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Rebecca and Nathan uptown with political boss Big Tim Sullivan.

TheatreWorks production of Rags is superb. The staging delights. Making full use of its 50 foot proscenium, Joe Ragey’s sets virtually dance with moving walls, catwalks, and platforms, and video backdrop provides period orientation shots of the surroundings. Pamila Gray employs dramatic and varied lighting to fine effect.

The cast is capable throughout. In addition to Miller, Danny Rothman conveys the passion of strong political conviction as Saul. Julie Benko charms as the enthusiastic young Bella, hoping to find a new world beyond the limits of her environs, and Darlene Popovic keeps things lively with her wisecracking and matchmaking for herself as Rachel, the produce monger.

Rags with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, and book by Joseph Stein is produced by TheatreWorks and plays at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View through April 30, 2017.  All photos by Kevin Berne.

 

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