Theater Caps are bite-sized punch-packing capsule reviews by resident theater critic Elaine Liner. Use them as a reminder -- or a teaser, if you procrastinate -- of her full-length reviews in The Mixmaster's weekly sister.
Once again, Irving's Lyric Stage has found gold in an old, rarely done American musical. It's Rags, a 1986 show with a book by the late Joseph Stein (who also wrote Fiddler on the Roof), music by Charles Strouse (Annie, Bye Bye Birdie) and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked).
Rags played only four nights on Broadway when it opened 25 years ago and has undergone several rewrites since. It certainly seems like it's in great shape now. Started by Stein as a sequel to Fiddler (Tevye and his family were to emigrate from Russia to America), it evolved into a story of strong immigrant women in Manhattan in the early 20th century. With several dynamite solos for its two female leads - young mother Rebecca (played by Amanda Passanante) and her single friend Bella (vocal dynamo Kristin Dausch) - it's a great showcase for big musical theater voices.
The Lyric production feels enormous, though it has only a raked platform for scenery and the simplest of period costumes pulled from wardrobe sources. The scale of Rags comes from its musical performances. When the 21-member cast sings as one, accompanied by the 35-member orchestra in the pit, the sound is so rich and round, you may weep a little. That's where Lyric Stage places it focus, on the music, giving every note of Rags a chance to soar.
Directed by Cheryl Denson, with musical direction by Jay Dias, Rags is a brilliant celebration of American musical forms. Strouse borrows from the ragtime rhythms of Scott Joplin, the patriotic themes of Irving Berlin and the mournful sounds of klezmer clarinet. Schwartz's lyrics are full of clever interior rhymes and funny turns of phrase. Each song adds to the storytelling, which is what should happen in a well-constructed musical.
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All the leading roles are well cast. Passanante is a feisty Rebecca, struggling to find her place in the new landscape of New York City. She and Bella get jobs in sweatshops - the Rags of the title refers to the rag trade that employed so many immigrants 100 years ago - but Rebecca, influenced by her new friend Saul (Brian Hathaway), a union organizer, soon realizes she's being exploited and endangered by the cruel working conditions. She has a Norma Rae moment toward the end of the show, standing up to her bosses and making it clear she's coming into her own as an Americanized Jewish woman.
If you like old-fashioned woman-oriented musicals like Gypsy and Funny Girl, which Lyric also revived to great acclaim in recent seasons, you'll like Rags. Get there before it closes this weekend.
Rags continues through November 6 at Lyric Stage, Irving. Box office: 972-252-2787.