There is a fiddler and there is a roof in Rags, the 1986 musical getting a splendid revival at Irving's Lyric Stage. But those aren't the only things it has in common with that other piece of American musical theater featuring Russian Jews belting show tunes. The books for Rags and Fiddler on the Roof are by Joseph Stein, who died in 2010, just as Lyric producer Steven Jones began working with Rags composer Charles Strouse on a revamped version of the show.
Packed with powerful vocals by its leads and played with a 35-piece orchestra in the pit, Rags is the sort of noble, heartfelt effort that underscores Lyric's dedication to doing great and often underappreciated American musicals in a big way. Strouse, now 83, pitched Rags to Lyric Stage, having seen and liked Lyric's production of his Bye Bye Birdie last year — the same week he saw Dallas Theater Center open its big-budget revival of another Strouse musical, It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman.
Rags played for only four performances in its Broadway run 25 years ago. Since then Strouse and lyricist Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell, Pippin) have repolished it several times, putting new songs in, taking others out and trying to find the right balance of characters. The book tells interwoven stories of Jewish refugees coming through Ellis Island to Manhattan's Lower East Side in the early 20th century and trying to find their place in the American dream.
Rags continues through November 6 at Lyric Stage, Irving. Call 972-252-2787.
If it sounds like a sequel to Fiddler, it almost was. Stein had begun writing it as that, with Tevye and his family escaping the pogroms to sail to America. But other characters emerged instead and Rags evolved into a musical about Jewish immigrant women, with subplots about culture clashes, Tammany Hall politics and the awful assembly lines where many refugees worked in grim conditions before unions helped change the garment industry.
Front and center in Rags are young mother Rebecca Hershkovitz (played here by the gorgeous Amanda Passanante) and her friend Bella (Kristin Dausch, who was Lyric's fine Funny Girl and who stops this show with the title song). The girls meet on the boat over from Europe and decide to share a tenement apartment in Lower Manhattan. Living with them are Rebecca's young son David (Chet Monday) and Bella's widowed father, Avram (Jackie L. Kemp). Rebecca has lost touch with husband Nathan (G. Shane Peterman), who arrived in New York years before and has no idea his wife and son have followed.
Before Nathan shows up in the second act, having Americanized his name to "Nat Harris," Rebecca falls for a fiery union organizer named Saul (handsome Brian Hathaway). The two men represent opposite sides of societal assimilation. Nat, a ward leader promising a crooked Irish pol (Stephen Bates) the Jewish vote, is embarrassed that his wife speaks little English. Idealistic Saul, who gives David and Rebecca English lessons, appeals to her sense of justice. When the Triangle Factory fire claims lives, Rebecca is inspired to lead her fellow seamstresses in a defiant walkout.
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Songs in Rags reflect a melting pot of period styles. Strouse, who has always written knockout show music, pays melodic homage to Scott Joplin, Irving Berlin, Kurt Weill, George Gershwin and the minor-key folk tunes of Jewish klezmer. Schwartz's lyrics are pointedly political and click with internal rhymes, as when two predatory slickers look over the latest batch of arrivals on the dock: "Another load of greenhorns fresh off the boat, another wave of refugees/to fill the mills and factories/a little grist for the capital system ... Greenhorns, ship 'em in/They keep our pockets full of green."
There's an Occupy Wall Street relevance to messages in Rags about the oppression of low-paid working stiffs and the struggle of unions to gain rights for huddled masses yearning to breathe something other than the stifling air of sweatshops. These used to be cherished American values, before the current wave of robber barons started blaming poor people for the high unemployment rate.
If that makes Rags sound a bit quaint, well, perhaps. But like all good musicals, it's really all a love story anyway. In this one, there's the romantic triangle of Rebecca and her men at the center of a larger romantic idea that anyone from anywhere can do anything once they sail past the Statue of Liberty. The newcomers fall in love with their new country. "You're a Yankee boy now," Nathan sings to David in one of this show's dandier numbers.
Directed by Cheryl Denson, with musical direction by Jay Dias, Rags is an old-fashioned American musical, enriched by the young cast of 21 exceptionally talented singers and actors. I can report that Strouse approves too. Listening in on his intermission conversation with his wife on opening night, I heard him say, "This is the way we imagined this show." Imagine that.