Review: Camelot revisits the wretched refuse in 'Rags'

Is musical tragicomedy a genre? It is now. With the book by Joseph Stein, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, "Rags" is nothing less than the story of the Jews who poured into the Lower East Side of New York City a century ago.

Camelot Theatre Company's new production, directed by Livia Genise, is a rollicking triumph that catches the sweep and spirit of the story. Focused on two young women among the thousands who fled persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe, "Rags," is a celebration of the perseverance of a people.

Rebecca Hershkowitz (Rose Passione) befriends Bella Cohen (Meghan McCandless) on a refugee-filled ship to America, a sort of immigrant special. With her son, David (Lisa Marie Werfel), in tow, Rebecca plans to join her husband, Nathan, (Mark B. Ropers), who came to America eight years earlier. Meanwhile, the Hershkowitzes board with Bella and her father, Avram, a bearded patriarch, in a crowded tenement where Bella takes in sewing while Rebecca goes to work in a Garment District sweatshop.

Donald Zastoupil's fabric-themed stage, aided by a large video screen, briefly evokes a ship and harbor, then the teeming Lower East Side, where as many as 5,000 people lived on a single block. Genise and choreographer Rebecca K. Campbell move the large cast smartly around a small stage as they rise to big musical numbers with the accompaniment of a live, five-piece orchestra.

Rebecca imagines she will be safe. Well, she will be safe from the depredations of Cossacks, but this America is a strange and dangerous new world. It is an era of robber barons, political bosses, corruption, agitators, strange new ideas in the air.

At the head of the local political machine is Big Tim Sullivan (Heiland Hoff), who sees Jews as alien but gives Nathan a ward healer job as part of a cynical scheme to gain Jewish support. There's probably a Yiddish word for what Nathan is, which is roughly what an Oreo is in African-American culture.

If Nathan has sold his soul in a pathetic attempt to join a rotten system, Saul (Jeremy G. Johnson), a young Communist who wants to unionize the Garment District, represents the moral choice at the other end of the spectrum. Rebecca is torn between the two as her arc goes from being a stranger in a strange land to becoming a woman who is willing to fight for justice.

Mixing the political with the personal on the stage always runs the risk of introducing a preachy note or bogging down the narrative momentum, but that never happens here. Partly that's due to the music, which ranges from wistful ballads ("Children of the Wind") to social commentary ("Greenhorns") to rousing dance numbers (many). Under Karl Iverson's musical direction, this is a powerful and supple orchestra which, due to space constraints, unfortunately plays out of sight.

It is a law of Broadway that the songs must either move the story forward or develop the characters more deeply. That's generally the case here, with songs such as "Uptown," in which Nathan lays his cards on the table.

Not the least of the riches "Rags" pulls out of its theatrical bag of goodies is a play-within-a-play production of — of all things — "Hamlet." This is a funny, loving salute to the Yiddish theater of a bygone age, with a nod to the leftist agitation that sometimes accompanied it. It is a lavishly staged and costumed musical set piece — and the only klezmer version of the melancholy Dane you're likely to see this year. It's accompanied by Saul the agitator, whose interpretation of Shakespeare is frankly devoted to a little leftist consciousness-raising.

The play's truly tragic episode takes place off-stage, when an unknown number of girls and young women die in a sweatshop fire. The incident reflects the 1911 Triangle Fire in which many immigrant workers perished because they were locked in their workplace and the fire escapes ended in mid-air.

The weakness of "Rags" is that it provides no emotionally satisfying climax and denouement for Rebecca. Instead, the story sort of fades out, and the authors in effect come clean that it was all a love letter to a people and their era. As such "Rags" contains the inevitable tragedy, although the overall mood is comic.

"Rags" is a joyful experience, written with a deep affection that this production captures with zest.

Genise has a love of the uniquely American Broadway musical form and a talent to mount large, complex productions in the little black box that has housed Camelot and its forerunners for many years. You wonder what delights await a year down the road, when the company will occupy its new, $2.7 million home next door.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at

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