The Jewish community has been persecuted for centuries. Joseph Stein’s, Rags, tells the story of Russian Jews in 1910, escaping persecution and massacre in their own country. They hope to find a better life in America, the land of opportunity. This revised edition by David Thompson combines Charles Strouse’s musical score with Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics. It is making its UK premiere at Hope Mill Theatre. There is no denying the startling relevance of this musical to a modern audience. With hostility towards migrants intensifying, and antisemitism becoming widespread, Rags feels as relevant today as it has ever been.
Charles Strouse’s musical score for Rags is a beautiful blend of traditional Jewish Klezmer street music and American jazz, providing a wonderful fusion of the old world and the ‘brand new world’. Nick Barstow’s musical direction deserves credit as Rags’ music is not only provided off-stage by musicians, but also on-stage by the phenomenally talented ensemble. James Dangerfield, Emma Fraser, James Hastings, and Hanna Khogali all play various instruments, such as the violin, clarinet and accordian. In addition to performing a multitude of characters, their on-stage music provides intimacy and authenticity to the Klezmer street music.
Coupled with Stephen Schwartz’s exquisite lyrics, this is by far one of the best musicals I have seen. All the songs in Rags are poignant and beautiful, yet tinged with sadness, as the Jewish migrants realise that they are seen as ‘an alien flood’. The harsh realism of racist songs like ‘Greenhorns‘ and ‘Take our Country Back’ are a far cry from the dreams of freedom and opportunity in songs like ‘Yankee Boy‘, ‘Penny a Tune’ and the lovely ‘Three Sunny Rooms‘. Juxtaposing songs of hope and aspiration with those of brutal oppression makes Rags a compelling, yet utterly heart-breaking musical. Knowing that Jewish people are still persecuted today, after all that they have endured in the past, is tragic.
Gregor Donnelly’s set design also superbly reflects the harsh realism of the narrative. Concentrated in one room in a small tenement, Donnelly’s set highlights the poverty and struggles that the Jewish community faced. Striking imagery is created rear stage, as the New York City skyline is formed out of piles of suitcases, a visual metaphor for the Jewish song, ‘Fabric of America‘. Partitions are also impressively used to create separate spaces, without the need for extensive scene changes, resulting in smooth, seamless transitions. It is a fantastic use of Hope Mill’s theatre space.
Likewise, Bronagh Lagan’s direction also capitalises on the restricted space. This is particularly apparent in a poignant scene where the Sabbath is observed at the same time as a Latin Mass. Entirely candle-lit, this scene, for me, is the highlight of Rags. As Jewish prayer mixes with the Catholic ‘Ave Maria‘, respectfully educating the audience of each religion’s rituals, a striking similarity is evident. Despite some differences, we are all the same. We are all human, regardless of religion.
The performances by each member of the cast are magnificent. I have already mentioned the ensemble, who deserve the greatest applause. However, lead actress Rebecca Trehearn, has an exceptional voice that shines in her solo songs, ‘Edge of a Knife’ and ‘If We Never Meet Again’ which gave me goosebumps. Lydia White’s Bella and Sam Peggs’ Ben are also utterly endearing as a romantic couple. Bursting with the unbridled innocence and ecstasy of first love, the songs they share together are a joy to watch.
Everything about this production is perfect. A flawless musical, startlingly relevant and beautifully executed.