Rags -Book by Joseph Stein revised by David Thompson, Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Stephen Scwartz. The Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, London N4 to 8 February 2020. 2**. William Russell.

Book by Joseph Stein revised by David Thompson, Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP to 8 February 2020.
Mon – Sat 7.30pm Mat Thu & Sat 3pm.
Runs 2hr 30 mins One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7070 0876
Review: William Russell 14 January.
As always with musicals, especially ones that flop, the problem is the book. Rags ran for 20 performances, 16 of which were previews, when originally staged on Broadway in 1986. Several rewrites followed over the years. In 2001 Tim Ramsden said of it at the Bridewell that the plot was under developed although it had musical riches.I saw a student production at Guildhall in 2017 which I did not review, but again the story line seemed slight and in act two things were swiftly tied up to no great effect. In those days it was a story about immigrants from Russia who ended up in the garment industry in New York in 1911 where they found work in sweat shops, the rise of trade unions battling for better conditions, and a love affair between a Jewish union man and a young immigrant mother whose husband had disappeared. He turned out when he reappeared to be on the side of the bosses. It was no great shakes of a plot, but the score with its mixture of jazz, ragtime, Russian folk and Jewish Klezmer music as well as some shamelessly Broadway ballads was enjoyable in a kind of Fiddler on the Roof lite manner, hardly surprising given that the book was by Joseph Stein even if the composer was different.
But this latest version has a brand new plot devised by David Thomson which is a dog’s breakfast of themes and has lost what interest there was in the original with anti Jewish racism, nasty Irish thugs threatening rape, a tediously cute child learning to be American, the Jewish union man turned into an Italian for no good reason, and gutsy women making a go of it in a man’s world. The show directed by Bronagh Lagan originated at the Hope Mill theatre last year when Stephen Schwartz co-operated in the production for which Strouse produced several new songs. It now has an inordinately long first half and a short act two which ties up the loose ends at breakneck speed. Rags should not be beyond saving but this is not the rescue job demanded. Cliché follows cliché at breakneck speed in a production which at best is fussy and irritating, but there is a saving grace – the cast is first rate. Carolyn Maitland as Rebecca, the immigrant who proves a success as a dressmaker, is very good indeed, and delivers the big closing ballad Children of the Wind beautifully. As Avram, the widowed academic failing dismally as a street trader, Dave Willetts lends his impressive weight to the role. He and Rachel Izen as Rachel, the widow who sees in him her next husband, are a joy to behold. A class act they rise to their long awaited number, Three Sunny Rooms, with such consummate style one is left wishing they had more to do.
The cast work hard, the set by Gregor Donnelly is a clever mix of old suitcases and furniture, and the score is very well played by the band under Joe Bunker and the on stage Klezmer players. But this Rags does not produce riches and the blame for that lies fair and square with the rewritten book which is worse than the Guildhall version. That had its weaknesses. This sentimental mish mash has no strengths. What you get is a four star cast making the best of a bad job in a two star show. Had it been the Guildhall version there would have at least been some interest in seeing why it had not fared well, but this is a brand new affair.

Rebecca: Carolyn Maitland.
Avram: Dave Willetts.
Bronfman: Sam Attwater.
Anna: Debbie Chazen.
American: Adam Crossley.
American: Matthew Grant.
Sal: Alex Gibson-Giorgio.
Rachel: Rachel Izen.
Bella: Martha Kirby.
Ben: Oisin Nolan-Power.
Jack: Jeremy Rose.
David: Samuel Jones/Jude Muir.
Klezmer Ban – Arthur Ban, Angela Casesar, Drew Dillon, Natasha Karp.

Director: Bronagh Lagan.
Musical Director: Joe Bunker.
Choreographer: Philip Michael Thomas.
Set & Costume Designer: Gregor Donnelly.
Orchestrator: Nick Barstow.
Lighting Designer: Derek Anderson.
Sound Designer: James Nicholson.
Dialect Coach: Manny Crooks
Production Photographs: Pamela Rait.

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