'Rags' Wraps Up Goodspeed Season In Style

Taking the 1986 Broadway misfire "Rags" out of mothballs was a risk. Refashioning it fully, with two of its original creators (lyricist Stephen Schwartz and composer Charles Strouse) on board for all the changes — makes for an exciting end to the Goodspeed Opera House season.

Exciting, but not of the usual Goodspeed sort. This "Rags" is not a rousing big ensemble show with kicklines or mammoth sets.

Director Rob Ruggiero is the guy who fit the splashy "Show Boat" onto the Goodspeed stage a few seasons ago, but "Rags" is a listen-in-close, delight-in-the-details endeavor similar to what Ruggiero does regularly on the small stage of TheaterWorks in Hartford, where he's the producing artistic director.

There's a boat at the beginning of "Rags" — a ship full of immigrants about to disembark at Ellis Island — but the vessel suggested only by a railing. "Rags" main set is a tenement flat, and that's where the realistic detail comes in. Most of the other settings are suggested by projections, costumes or people's manners. This is New York as defined by its people, not its skyscrapers. A versatile five-person chorus billed as the Quintet does as much to deliver the atmosphere as any of the designers.

Ruggiero gives "Rags" the feel of a modern musical. There are no big production numbers but a lot of beautiful intimate exchanges. There's a dramatic throughline that exists whether the characters are singing or speaking.

"Rags" is based around rituals: religious ones, family ones, mating ones, angry-mob ones. A woman named Rebecca (the vibrant, warbling Samantha Massell) and her son David (Christian Michael Camporin) are brought into the Jewish community of Lower East Side New York City circa 1910. They share a tiny apartment with Avram Cohen (moody Adam Heller), his daughter Bella (bright young vulnerable type Sara Kapner) and the industrious Blumberg couple Jack and Anna (funny-gloomy Mitch Greenberg and funny-snippy Emily Zacharias).

Dresses are sewn on the premises, and Rebecca is such an ace seamstress that everyone's fortunes rise when her work catches the eye of businessman Max Bronfman (David Harris, who co-starred in Ruggiero's fine production of "Next to Normal" at TheaterWorks last season). An Italian neighbor, Sal Russon (strapping, suspenders-wearing Sean MacLaughlin) stops by on Sabbath days to turn on the lights.

Rebecca is courted by both Max and Sal. The elderly Avram finds a love match with a fellow kvetcher, Rachel (Lori Wilner), which leads to a terrific little number where she repeatedly says "I won't say anything more."

Bella is pursued by as an aspiring Tin Pan Alley songwriter named Ben (Nathan Salstone). Seems like a lot of romancing, but not for a show that is entirely built around human interactions and dreams of happy togetherness.

There are scenes of violence, grieving, hardship and heartbreak, but "Rags" never melts into a puddle of maudlin self-pity. It maintains an optimistic attitude.

Not everyone's story ends happily, but a sense of dread is avoided. This is a lived-in character-based drama. It has a time, a place and a message: follow your heart, but keep your head.

There's plenty about this show that is not old-fashioned. "Rags"'s title song, which ends the first act, is a multistyled tour de force for Massell that starts simply then ascends to strident folk-operatic Kurt Weill territory.

Schwartz's lyrics are crisp and clipped, easy to digest and a nice fit for Strouse's warm yet jaunty melodies. There are songs of struggle, songs of wonder, songs of courage, songs of conflict, songs of indecision, songs of industry.

It's pointless to raise comparisons between the original "Rags" of 1986, or indeed any of the show's several other revisions over the years, with what is at the Goodspeed now. Most of the characters have changed profoundly, and some have disappeared altogether. They have different motivations, different environments, even different cultural heritages. There are new songs, a whole new tone and pace. This renewed "Rags" also reflects current times, speaking to present-day concerns about prejudice, social injustice, female empowerment and the difficulties of running a small business.

"Rags" is fully dressed, not a stitched-together attempt to salvage a few good songs from a forgotten show. Not ragged at all.

RAGS — revised book by David Thompson, original book by Joseph Stein, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, music by Charles Strouse, directed by Rob Ruggiero — plays through Dec. 10 at the Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam. Performances are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m. There are also 6:30 p.m. Sunday evening performances through Nov. 5, and 2 p.m. Thursday matinees beginning Nov. 9. Tickets are $40 to $85. 860-873-8668 and goodspeed.org.

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