'Rags' captures best of Broadway

In presenting the musical "Rags" as its big summer offering, Camelot Theatre Company has once more leapt headlong into an ambitious production.

"Rags" is nothing less than the story of the immigrant experience of eastern European Jews coming to America circa-1910, as told through the individual saga of Rebecca Hershkowitz and her son David. Think of it as what happened to the characters in "Fiddler on the Roof" after they've left Anatevka in the format of a sweeping Broadway musical.

These are people who have left everything familiar in the hope of finding a better life — freedom, a decent living and a more prosperous and promising future for their children. In short, it is the story of every immigrant that has arrived in this country, willing to take any sort of work for any sort of wage in order to achieve that dream while being successively exploited by the unscrupulous.

Rebecca (Rose Passione) and David (played as a young teenager by Lisa Marie Werfel) arrive at Ellis Island in steerage, having barely escaped from a pogrom that devastated their village, undergone a harrowing journey and literally begged their way onto a boat. Rebecca's husband, Nathan (Mark B. Ropers) left for America years ago and essentially abandoned them. Upon landing, Rebecca and David are nearly sent back but are "adopted" into the family of Avram (Bob Jackson Miner) and his daughter Bella (Meghan McCandless), whom Rebecca befriended on the passage over.

Once settled on Suffolk Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Avram, an educated man, is reduced to peddling household items from a pushcart with David's help. Rebecca gets a job in a garment sweatshop. Bella hand-sews piecework from the cramped family tenement apartment.

In the course of adapting to this strange new world, they encounter numerous people living their version of the American dream. There is Ben (Michael Maisonneuve), determined to make it in any entrepreneurial way he can so he can marry his beloved Bella. There is Nathan, now going by "Nat Harris" and desperate to be named ward leader of the "Jew district" for his cynical political bosses of Tammany Hall. There is the union organizer Saul (Jeremy G. Johnson), trying to persuade desperate people to stand together to force the bosses to provide civilized working conditions.

In the course of the play, we visit Ellis Island, a production of "Hamlet" by the Yiddish theater, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, a Tammany Hall political reception and a raucous union rally — all of which showcased in vibrant musical numbers.

Rebecca's dilemma — her growing social consciousness and her attraction to the radical Saul, versus her "duty" to her now-reappeared and rather slimy husband, Nathan — are framed in lovely ballads.

The play has an impeccable pedigree: The book is by Joseph Stein, who wrote "Fiddler on the Roof." Music is by Charles Strouse, the composer of "Annie" and "Bye Bye Birdie." Lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz, who also did the lyrics for "Wicked," "Godspell" and "Pippin." The play was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score.

Sound impressive? Unfortunately, the play opened in New York in August 1986, received so-so reviews and closed after four performances. The creative team then revised the play and produced it again in 1991 at the American Jewish Theatre in New York for a limited run, and again in 1993 and 1999, each time streamlining the narrative more and more, cutting the cast from as many as 30 in the original production to 15, then to a version that could be performed with nine.

In this Camelot Theatre production, director Livia Genise used the focused, streamlined story but she has filled her stage with 19 actors. On Camelot's small stage, she has indeed given us "huddled masses." Mostly it works beautifully, thanks to choreography by Rebecca K. Campbell.

In a play covering so much ground, though, the characters are, unfortunately, reduced to symbols. Rebecca becomes a prototypical feminist. Unions are good. Tammany is bad. Bosses are evil. Assimilation is good. Old-fashioned is bad.

It is to Genise's credit and her excellent large cast that this production manages to overcome these odds most of the time.

Passione has a beautiful voice and the acting ability to bring the plucky cardboard character of Rebecca to life, especially in the songs. Lisa Marie Werfel, incredibly, keeps in character as the young David who functions as the narrator. She, too, has a beautiful voice and makes a charming, never cloying "kid." McCandless, Miner, Maisonneuve and Ropers are equally effective.

(Note: Presila Quinby is a reliably fine actress with a beautiful voice, but she was not the best choice to be a dialect coach for Yiddish and New York Jewish accents. At times, watching these actors valiantly attempt a Yiddish accent is positively painful.)

Probably the production's most successful attempt at conveying "Jewish" is in the outrageous scene at a Yiddish theatre production of "Hamlet" ("Oy, it's hard being a prince.").

The music is provided by an offstage "orchestra" of Rogue Valley stalwarts. Music director Karl Iverson plays keyboard and accordion, Kathy Hannan Campbell is on synthesizer, Bil Leonhart on guitar, banjo and mandolin, Peter Springs on woodwinds and bass, and Steve Sutfin on percussion.

They give us everything from klezmer to ragtime with a healthy infusion of pure Broadway brass and they do it with style and verve.

Once again, set designer Donald Zastoupil, Bart Grady's lighting design and Brian O'Connor's video design — slides of teeming decks on ships, New York street scenes, tenements, sweatshops and much hanging laundry — effectively magnifies Camelot's matchbox-size stage.

"Rags" is an enjoyable evening at the theater, joyfully and evocatively done. It's got the spirit of the best of Broadway and an intimacy and love uniquely homegrown.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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