Nothing ragged about Lyric Stage’s current production of the 1986 Tony nominated Rags, created by the top-flight musical theatre trio Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof, book), Charles Strouse (Annie, music) and Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, lyrics). A visually elegant performance placed within an austere but evocative setting with strong acting and superb singing in compliment – it’s all set off exquisitely by Lyric’s glorious full orchestration. In spite of the play’s drawbacks, director Cheryl Denson mounts a first-class production with a sterling cast and design team.
Whose idea was it to write this musical? It feels like a tame, committee-written sequel to Fiddler on the Roof with less than memorable songs and no unifying passion. It’s obvious why it doesn’t get produced very often, even with Lyric Stage’s masterful production. The Russian Jews have now moved to New York, where they face new cultural challenges and “Cossacks in business suits.” There’s formulaic romance – guy meets girl, loses girl, gets her back. There’s a touch of West Side story style rumbling gang violence. A comic interlude that appears shoehorned in breaks up the romance threads of Act I with a stereotyped “Jewish Theater” excerpt from Hamlet (Oi, Chaimlet would be more appropriate as its title). And a sweet, innocent Jewish émigré presumably gets killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, an actual tragedy from 100 years ago that resulted in the deaths of more than 100 teen-aged Jewish and Italian garment workers. Lyric Stage honors the memory of the victims and the groundbreaking safety legislation that the disaster inspired by partnering with the national Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition. Such good intentions. This is one of those shows that tries and tries to say something important, to convey a period of transition in history with breadth and depth; and it only partly succeeds. The characters do not confuse; the music does not bore; the story simply doesn’t reach out and pull the audience in. Perhaps they tried to do too much with it; after all the edits and adjustments, even with this “newly revised” version, its creators manage to relegate the play’s passion and vision to a broad, uneven, superficial treatment.
Still, it is a gorgeous production. Instead of creating a realistic playing space with lots of set pieces, scenic designer Mamie Trotter provided an open raked platform, cut like a giant tatter of “rag” to fill the entire Carpenter Stage. Lighting designer Julie N. Simmons evokes mood and ambiance with kaleidoscopic washes of light that spill, tumble and cascade across the rake, conveying a tactile sense of the colorful cacophony of early 20thcentury New York. Director Denson uses the open, uncluttered expanse handily to display her considerable skill at sculpting superb stage pictures with her performers that define locale and relationship.
The simplicity of staging offers the performers the opportunity to show their wealth of talents in pure, concert-like fashion. Amanda Passanante excels as the female lead Rebecca with a plucky, compassionate performance, giving her songs full-voiced dimension from ballad and blues to straight ahead musical theatre. Wiry and intense, Brian Hathaway as romantic lead Saul matches Passanante’s vitality with commitment to burn; their smoothly-blended, moody Act II duet, “Wanting”, is one of the most haunting, effective songs in the show. Jackie L. Kemp provides comic relief as the middle-aged man clinging to old-fashioned ways. Kristin Dausch as Bella, the young girl who dies in the fire, displays her vocal range and inspired talent to full capacity every time she sings. Jonathan Bragg, Lois Sonnier Hart, G. Shane Peterman, Chet Monday, Max Swarner, Lucia A. Welch, to name part of the cast – all work as a taut ensemble machine yet bring individualized professional skills to enhance the performance. Go to revel in the fine artistry for which Lyric Stage has earned its national reputation. Rags won’t dazzle you, by itself; but the performance, resplendent with artistic riches, very well may.
Rags runs through November 6, 2011. Lyric Stage‘s Music Director Jay Dias conducts the marvelous thirty-five piece Lyric Stage Orchestra. Orchestrations by Michael Starobin. With fine costumes by Drenda Lewis and spry choreography by Ann Nieman. Performances are in the Irving Arts Center’s Carpenter Performance Hall, 3333 N. MacArthur Blvd. Tickets: http://www.lyricstage.org or 972-252-2787.
October 28, 29, November 3,4, 5 @ 8:00 PM and October 30 and November 6 @ 2:30 PM.