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"Rags" in L.A. — a Perfect Fit
Passed Over on Broadway, the Musical Is Well-Made by Colony
Review by Michael Frym, LA Reader,  May 21, 1993

During the 1986-87 Broadway season, theatregoers had a bevy of delectable choices from the British imports Me and My Girl, Les Miserables, and Starlight Express, from Stephan Sondheim’s Into the Woods and a highly successful revival of Anything Goes. In this climate, it was easy to miss a smaller, less lustrous musical like Rags, even though the book was written by Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof), and the music by Charles Strouse (Bye Bye Birdie and Annie), and the lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell). But now this show, which was too intrinsically intimate for the larger Broadway houses, has found a hand-in-glove fit at the Colony’s Studio Theatre.

In a sense, Rags picks up where Fiddler on the Roof leaves off. At Fiddler’s close, the beaten residents of Anatevka leave in search of a new beginning; Rags chronicles another group’s discovery of that future. During the early part of the twentieth century, crammed aboard trans-Atlantic steamers not unlike the closed quarters of slave ships, European immigrants swarmed to New York Harbor seeking a piece of the American dream. The sad conditions they faced after arriving were sweat shops, impossibly tight living quarters, and prejudice — not just from Anglos, but from members of their own various cultures who had come before them. Quite often, the more enterprising and mercenary fed off their weaker, more massive brethren.

In addition to the massive influx of immigrants, the United States was feeling other growing pains. It was the time of unionization and labor organization, as well as the birth of American socialism. These issues, along with the redefinition of family roles and the replacement of old traditions with new ideas, provide the foundation of Rags. 

The show opens on the deck of a ship carrying Eastern European immigrants "yearning to breathe freely." They are wide-eyed optimists, full of hope for a fresh start. But the tone of exploitation is established upon their landing, as American recruiter for the sweat shops sing "Greenhorns."

On Ellis Island, Rebecca (Jan Pessano) and her young son David (Jordan Davis) seek, unsuccessfully, to reunite with her husband Nathan (Michael Gregory) who they haven’t seen in six years. They are befriended by Bella (Annie Heller) and her father (Don Woodruff), who offer the abandoned pair accommodations at his cousin’s flat. The first stirrings of challenge to the "old order" manifest as Bella becomes enamored — much to her father’s chagrin — of a dashing, opportunistic shipmate named Ben (Jeffrey Steefel).

Rebecca finally finds employment doing piece work in a tailor shop, where she encounters the inequalities of society. Into the workers’ dreary existence bursts union organizer Saul (Robert Stoeckle), who urges revolt. Rebecca and Saul inevitably develop a mutual attraction, particularly when it becomes clear that her son has bonded tightly with the labor leader. These early romantic leanings are shattered, however, by the arrival of Nathan at the end of Act One.

Act Two proffers the meat of the play: denial versus discovery of one’s self. Nathan, it turns out is a front runner for the position of ward leader (vote-getter) in the Jewish Sector for power-hungry political boss Big Tim Sullivan (JimBrochu). In fact, Nathan is so desperate to assimilate the ways of acceptable society that he plans to change his name from Hershkowitz to Harris. The rest of the mostly predictable plot has the stalwart Rebecca finding pride in her newfound self and rejecting the easy life her husband offers.

The obvious difference between Fiddler and Rags lies in Charles Strouse’s richly layered score. On the board the ships, cultures intermingled out of necessity, and with nothing to do on the long trip, it was inevitable that their musics would connect. The score reflects the complex hybrid of different musical types and the result of their integration.

The cast and ensemble deliver top-drawer performances, with Pessano simply awe-inspiring. Whether singing an upbeat song of hope or a plaintive ballad, her lush vocalizations, coupled with intuitive acting precision, make hers a true star turn. She is supported most notably by Davis, who charismatically sings and acts up a storm without an ounce of obnoxious precociousness. Other standouts in a field of many include Steefel and Heller as the young love interests, Gregory as the up-and-coming Nathan, and Eileen T’Kaye and the Yente-like Rachel.

The design triumvirate of Susan Gratch (sets), Ted Ferreira (lights), and Ted C. Giammona (costumes) have rendered a marvelous world for director Todd Nielsen and musical director Steven Applegate’s performers to strut their stuff.

Rags possesses a definitive timeliness, in that, like New York City early this century, Los Angeles finds itself host to a steady flow of immigrants who learn that life is far from easy in the City of Angels. Those who flock here are often still exploited, still making their "fresh starts" in modern-day sweat shops, still reduced to wearing little better than rags. While the Broadway production of Rags proved unable to compete with the like of Les Miz and Me and My Girl, the Colony’s production unquestionably deserves to be seen.
 
 

Copyright 1993, LA Reader
Rags at the Colony Theatre