Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam: The year is 1910 and a ship full of immigrants is making its way to New York Harbor. Those onboard are excited and singing “We’ve talked about America; we’ve dreamed about coming to America,” and now here they are. In a beautifully rendered musical counterpoint, well dressed capitalist are bemoaning “Another ship of greenhorns.” These successful Americans want to take back their country. They’re tired of watching ship after ship of Italians, Irish and Jews coming to their shores.
And so Rags, a musical that opened some 30 years ago and closed after only four performances on Broadway is now looking pretty good on the Goodspeed Opera House stage. That’s because it has been ripped open at the seams; reimagined, reinvented and returned as something brand new: Rags: An American Musical. It has a lot going for it with David Thompson’s adaptation of the original book by Joseph Stein and the original creators Charles Strouse’s music and Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics. Add to this powerhouse of creativity director Rob Ruggiero who wastes no time in creating a political prism through which what is old is new again. Rags couldn’t be more timely.
A poignancy in the opening scenes puts immigration in a very bright and shining spotlight. People left their homes and countries to come to America for a better life. Certainly that is the case for Rebecca Hershkowitz who enters Ellis Island with her young son David and only a few cents in her pocket. However, she arrives ready to work. She’s going to work hard and build a new life and she’s going to do it by sewing. She is a master seamstress with an eye for fashion.
Bella Cohen, a young woman Rebecca met on the ship, offers her refuge in her father’s already crowded Lower East Side apartment. It is here where Rebecca meets two very different men, one a union man and one a businessman. This is also where Bella meets the love struck musician who works as a fabric schlepper and stitcher.
While all seems so promising, hard times come and along with love comes loss. Some immigrants succeed; some do not. All of the actors are terrific. Samantha Massell as Rebecca is as picture perfect as she is pitch perfect. Sean MacLaughlin as the passionate Italian has a rich and vibrant voice. Sara Kapner is adorable as Bella and Adam Heller delivers a strong and moving performance of the rabbinical father. Nathan Salstone adds a nice bit of whimsy to the production, while David Harris has just the right touch to move from hero to villain. Also contributing to the production are Lori Wilner, Mitch Greenberg, Emily Zacharias, and Christian Michael Camporin. In addition to the cast there is a fine quintet that adds a nice balance to the music and the show.
So tightly woven is this new Rags that even with its revolving stage and fabulous staging and projected images, it seems rather restricted for its far reaching scope. The final curtain with its images of Mexicans, African Americans and new immigrants arriving in America is a bit too much in your face. It’s like the audience already gets the connection and many were talking about it during intermission. There’s no need to hit the audience in the head with it. It plays through Dec. 10. Box office: 860-873-8668.
Joanne Greco Rochman was a founding member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and is currently an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected].