Rags first appeared on Broadway in 1986 but closed after only four performances. The writers have since had other musical successes (notably lyricist Stephen Schwartz with Wicked) and Rags has undergone many rewrites.
Unfortunately, Rags still lacks refinement and depth, though the production at Hope Mill is saved by assured vocal performances.
Set in 1910, Rags tells the story of a Jewish woman, Rebecca Hershkowitz (Rebecca Trehearn), who leaves Russia for America with few possessions but high hopes for a better life. The lighting design (by Derek Anderson) nicely reflects Rebecca’s changing outlook as she goes from feeling intimidated by New York’s bright lights to enjoying the soft pink sunset once settled.
Bronagh Lagan’s direction carefully delineates differences between characters and their situations. Rebecca’s pragmatic contractual negotiations with Bronfman (a commanding Gavin James) contrast with the youthful flirtation between Bella (Lydia White) and Ben (Sam Peggs), who manage to convey so much longing through eye contact alone.
Looming over the action throughout, piles of old suitcases stand tall like buildings across New York’s skyline. This backdrop seems to symbolise the influence of the immigrant population in forging America’s national identity.
But for all the musical’s potential topicality, themes such as cultural assimilation and workers’ rights are touched upon without being fully developed. Overburdening the plot lessens the impact of emotion and ideas.
With so much narrative clutter, the simplest moments are the most affecting. In Children of the Wind, a poignant solo about loss and hope, Trehearn’s voice is sublime.