Updated: May 31, 2021
Joseph Stein (rev. David Thompson), Stephen Schwartz & Charles Strouse
Aria Entertainment and Hope Mill Theatre
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
2 March 2019 – 6 April 2019, 2hr 25min, inc 20min interval
So what happened to the people of Anatevka after the end of Fiddler on the Roof? This is a musical that tells the story of one family – well, one plus a solo mother and her son they take under their roof – struggling to make a new life in their Promised Land, the USA of 1910.
It’s not the characters we know from Fiddler, but it could be others from their village. Rags was written over 30 years ago and flopped on Broadway in its original version. Now the book has been revised by David Thompson, the lyrics and some of the music have also been adapted by Schwartz and Strouse, and this is the UK premiere of the new version.
Rebecca is the solo mum, and she brings her son David with her to New York on the ship from Dantzic. On the trip she befriends young Bella, who is travelling to join her father, Avram. He is widowed and shares a home with his younger sister, Anna, and her tailor husband, Jack, and they share what hospitality they have with Rebecca and the boy.
It’s a struggle for immigrants to make their way in America in 1910, and we meet their neighbour Rachel, young Ben, who is a self-taught musician who immediately falls for Bella, Bronfman the businessman, who gives them work but exploits them, and Sal, the Italian trade union firebrand.
Sal and Bronfman are both attracted to Rebecca, Rachel has designs on Avram, and the story works out in miniature the battles and dilemmas that come from this Jewish experience of being strangers in a strange land.
In Bronagh Lagan’s production it’s all perfectly clearly told (with four more ensemble performers and some doubling by the named cast) so the kaleidoscope of New York life moves smoothly and highly sympathetically through the show. I loved it for its presentation of another place and another time, and its warm and human values.
As a musical though, it has limitations. The songs catch different styles – klezmer, ragtime, early jazz and good old-fashioned schmaltz – and that’s all appropriate to the story, but there are actually too many of them, particularly in the first half, with only one really memorable - ‘Children of the Wind’, which comes very late in the show and makes a great finale but could have been a theme throughout. ‘Rags’, which is the title song and is reprised near the end after closing the first half, doesn’t have the same impact (and in our town, home of the ‘rag’ trade, its lyrics sound old hat).
The cast, led by Rebecca Trehearn as Rebecca, and including a professional stage debut by Lydia White as Bella, are all very good indeed, and the musical qualities (MD Nick Barstow) are high, using actor-musicians as the four ensemble performers and so mobilising the band into the action. I just wished the revisers of the show had had the nerve to be a bit more radical yet.