Dubbed the ‘sequel’ to Fiddler on the Roof, Elaine Bermitz reviews Rags the Musical, on stage recently at Hope Mill Theatre.
From the hold of a ship emerges a woman, followed by her son. She joins her travelling companion as they approach the new world of America. What’s in store for them and how will they make their way in this new life? The mother figure has no money at all, not even her $20 entry fee. So begins the classic immigrant’s tale.
A life surrounded by packing cases, the symbol of impermanence, is a theme which runs right through this musical. Though it’s a permanent feature of the Jewish story, it applies to other nations like never before: escaping from war, learning a new identity, teaching one’s children how to get on in a strange, often hostile world, and deciding what, if any, traditions to keep from the old life.
In Rags, Rebecca (played by Rebecca Trehearn) does make her way, at first as far as the stifling apartment of her friend Bella, where she shares a tiny space with four others, meeting Italians, thugs and other Jews, some talented, some shysters. She is buffeted about, dazed and confused by all of them. Her son is attacked and his sidelocks are cut off, but while she tells him not to be scared, she too is scared.
The songs reflect her confusion, but also the richness of the experience, both inside and out on the street. Trehearn as Rebecca has a beautiful voice and an excellent European accent, which contrasts well with Sal’s Italian chirpiness and later, the American brutes’ threatening tones when they sing ‘Greenhorns’.
The set was composed of the suitcases, which, when rearranged, transformed the small living area into a factory or a home. Ben, another passenger, who is in love with Bella, composes songs to her and hopes to get them published, while moonlighting as a show pianist. There is never a quiet moment in anyone’s day as everyone tries every way to make it, but at the end of the week there is the peace of Shabbat, set against the noise of the street.
Who gets on is the story of the show, and the music provides an enchanting background reflecting in turn pathos, sorrow, romance, fear, joy and hope with great subtlety and charm. Some of the songs, particularly the duet between Avram and Rachel, echo another of the original writer’s musical Fiddler on the Roof, but that is no bad thing at all.
Together with Aria Productions, Hope Mill Theatre’s founders William Whetton and Mathew Houston are making a significant contribution to musical theatre in this country and deserve the recognition they are getting. Their attention to detail and choice of material which deserve revisiting or a wider audience, is unerring. If this production goes the way of others which have appeared at Hope Mill, it will soon be in the West End, and I hope it does.