ESSEX —The Goodspeed production of “Rags,” directed by Rob Ruggiero, and running through Dec. 10, doesn’t simply blow the dust off of the original and short-lived 1986 show; it blows the roof off.
This musical, which explores the Jewish immigrant experience, circa 1910, has been completely revised and now focuses on one woman’s journey as she navigates the paths and pitfalls of being an outsider who believes she wants in. Samantha Massell’s luminous performance as this woman, Rebecca, anchors the evening and makes it shine.
Goodspeed’s “Rags” retains the lovely score by Charles Strouse (“Annie,” “Bye Bye Birdie”) and Stephen Schwartz’s sparkling lyrics (“Wicked,” “Pippin,” “Godspell”). Sadly, Joseph Stein (the librettist for “Fiddler on the Roof”), who wrote the original book, died in 2010, so David Thompson (“The Scottsboro Boys”) joined Goodspeed’s collaborators. As Ruggiero tells it, Stephen Schwartz is responsible for insisting that this be no “‘re-arranging the deck chairs’” revival, but instead “a complete re-working… of the piece.”
Joseph Stein’s original idea for “Rags” was to explore how the outcasts of Anatevka fared in America, so there are familiar moments here. But the American musical has consistently focused on being, or confronting, The Other. The descendents of Jewish immigrants wrote most of our iconic musicals, and prejudice, in its many guises, haunts their works. “Rags” stands in this tradition as a lucid, stirring evening of theater.
At curtain, we meet Rebecca, her young son, David (an accomplished and charming Christian Michael Camporin), and her new friend, Bella (a sweet Sara Kapner), all of whom are about to arrive at Ellis Island. Bella is assured of a warm welcome from her father, Avram (Adam Heller), who came to America earlier. Dangerously, Rebecca and David are alone.
However, Bella persuades Avram to take them in, and soon they are part of a typical family sewing business, working for a powerful outside boss. Neighbor Ben (the energetic and winning Nathan Salstone) runs the sewing machine (and is soon writing love songs for Bella, to Avram’s consternation); Uncle Jack (the impressive Mitch Greenberg) oversees the operation; and warm-hearted Aunt Anna (a strong Emily Zacharias) keeps everyone fed.
Right away it becomes clear that Rebecca, first tasked with “finishing” the pre-designed, identical dresses, is an artist with her needle. The boss, Max Bronfman (David Harris, mastering a tricky role), likes Rebecca’s artistry, and he likes the beautiful Rebecca, as well.
When Rebecca and David meet Catholic Italian Sal, we recognize both the musical’s central romance, and its central conflict. Sal, as played by a brilliant Sean MacLaughlin, defines charisma and radiates kindness. However, not only is Sal’s religion an obstacle, he is also a passionate union organizer, and Rebecca is determined to open her own dress shop, with Max as her mentor, so she and her son can move “uptown.”
Rounding out the cast is Lori Wilner as Rachel, who helps Avram succeed as a pushcart salesman, and a quintet of singers representing the upper class, blue-blooded (or long-assimilated) Americans who view the “Greenhorns” alternately as cheap labor and as a socialist threat. This chorus — J.D. Daw, Ellie Fishman, Danny Lindgren, Sarah Solie, and Jeff Williams — also at times plays other immigrants, and while Ruggiero’s choice is understandable and even meaningful (weren’t we all “greenhorns” once?), at times it makes for some distraction.
I also understand Ruggiero’s choice to cast Adam Heller and Lori Wilner in roles similar to their Tevye and Golde in Goodspeed’s “Fiddler on the Roof” of 2014; however, this is one place in which the script feels a bit too familiar. However, Massell’s Rebecca is a revelation: not only is her voice sweet and strong, but her passion and authenticity in this spectacular role are stunning.
The design team has somewhat mixed success. Michael Schweikardt’s set is clearly meant to replicate the “teeming” (as the poem puts it) world of New York’s Lower East Side; however, the many panels sliding back and forth and the revolving set pieces don’t always read. On the other hand, Linda Cho’s costumes capture each character’s ethnicity, class standing, and personal evolution. And Luke Cantarella’s projections are striking and poignant.
This “Rags” has polish and beauty, but more than that, it will speak to your heart in ways you might lament, but you cannot ignore.