Since closing on Broadway in 1986 after four performances, Rags has been stitched and unstitched so many times that this version, which premiered at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre last year, bears little resemblance to the original, nor any of the intervening attempts.
It has the component parts of a great musical: a book by Fiddler on the Roof’s Joseph Stein (heavily reworked by David Thompson), lyrics by Wicked’s Stephen Schwartz and score by Annie’s Charles Strouse. But even though each author brings moments of brilliance, the effect is scattershot rather than sustained.
Rags feels a little like a sequel to Fiddler. It starts in 1910 with a Jewish woman and her son seeking sanctuary on the shores of America. They’re taken in by a Jewish family who run a tailoring business from their tiny flat. In Bronagh Lagan’s bustling production a group of klezmer musicians wander on and off, and Gregor Donnelly’s design has suitcases stacked into a looming New York skyline.
Carolyn Maitland is superb as Rebecca, a woman trying to rebuild her life. She aces the big numbers. Alex Gibson-Giorgio’s bright-eyed enthusiasm as Italian union organiser Saul is infectious, and there’s beautiful, moving dignity in Dave Willetts’ Avram, especially towards the end.
Though the frustratingly pat first act feels messy and cliché-heavy, the many threads come together nicely: first, as a panoramic view of Jewish immigrant experiences – the ones who make it and the ones who don’t – then as a rousing, moving cry for unionisation.
Strouse’s versatile score is really worth hearing, and while the scars of its many incarnations are evident, there’s no denying that this version cleverly reduces the ambitious sprawl of the original into something that coheres and – occasionally – soars.