RAGS, Circle Theatre. This sweet and sturdy musical by author Joseph Stein, composer Charles Strouse, and lyricist Stephen Schwartz may have failed on Broadway, but Kevin Bellie’s small-scale, well-honed, and often passionate revival charms and moves. The 170-minute tale of Jewish immigrants seeking a good life in turn-of-the-century New York may be sprawling and sloppy, but its heart is in all the right places.
Stein’s story depicts an embattled Jewish family dealing with crooked politicians, sweatshops, protection rackets, and the threat of assimilation; on the bright side, we see a hilariously communal, Yiddish-theater Hamlet. But however inclusive the plot, it’s Strouse’s supple and often demanding score that wins minds and hearts. Stirringly shaped by musical director Janel Dennen, it ranges from a cappella choruses to sparkling ballads pulsating with honky-tonk, ragtime, klezmer, and Broadway-style show tunes.
A strong showcase for some solid musical talents, Rags is a tribute to its performers. Eva Chirco brings operatic intensity to the all-suffering role of loyal Rebecca, while Patty Corella, as her disillusioned friend Bella, delivers the bitter title number with chilling fervor. Equally forthright are Joe Lehman as an ardent union organizer and Christopher Grobe as Rebecca’s enterprising little boy.
The drawback is Robert A. Knuth’s cheap, ugly, and seemingly unfinished wooden set. Its empty carpentry suggests all the claustrophobia of the Lower East Side without any of the eccentricities or details. This honey of a musical and its excellent cast deserve better.