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STAGE REVIEW: RAGS The Musical

HUGE WASTE: Sam ATTwater as Bronfman and Crolyn Maitland as Rebecca in RAGS the Musical. Photo: Pamela Raith - Credit: Archant

RAGS the musical had a great deal of potential, but the latest performance was an open-heart surgery gone wrong, writes TIM WALKER.

Often considered to be one of the worst songs of all time, MacArthur Park has a special place in my heart. Jimmy Webb wrote a big, bold and beautiful score, but also the most banal lyrics imaginable about a histrionic bloke baking a cake and leaving it out in the rain. I always imagine Webb was trying to make the point that the music matters a whole lot more than the words and sometimes we just don’t listen or care.

That thought occurred to as I sat through RAGS The Musical, which is, by the standards of the Park Theatre, a lavish, big budget extravaganza with a huge cast, wonderful costumes and some great sets. The orchestration, too, under Joe Bunker, is of a high order, and it really ought to be a huge triumph, but, alas, the lyrics by Stephen Schwartz are almost uniformly bland and pointless.

This is a pity, because it makes it well nigh impossible to care about any of the characters – East European Jewish immigrants coming to the “promised land” of America at the turn of the century before last – or indeed to get a purchase on the story by Joseph Stein.

This man numbers Fiddler on the Roof among his credits and Schwartz gave the world Wicked, but past performance is no guarantee of success or quality, and the show bombed when it opened on Broadway in 1986 and closed after only four performances.

David Thompson has performed radical open-heart surgery on the script, but I’ve not idea why the Park should have felt the need to go to all this trouble. What would have been so awful about supporting a fresh idea and new talent? It’s true of course that anti-immigrant rabble-rousing – a lot of it anti-semitic – is now once again a worrying political issue, but this flawed and lightweight musical is not the way to go about making points about it.

I’ve no problems, however, with the cast who make the best of some very bad jobs. Carolyn Maitland shines as Rebecca, a woman trying to rebuild her life, and she belts out the big numbers with gusto. Alex Gibson-Giorgio, meanwhile, puts in a memorable turn as an idealistic Italian union organiser, and Dave Willetts as Avram even manages to work in some genuinely heartfelt acting. There’s also a memorable cameo from Rachel Izen as the canny old Rachel who delivers some witty one-liners, such as: “When there’s no love in your life, it all turns to fat.”

The director Bronagh Lagan does the best she can to keep things moving and shows some real flair. To evoke a blaze in a factory, he throws scarlet-tinted lights on the rags hanging from a washing line high above the stage and it’s remarkably effective. I just wish he and his cast and the other creatives all had something more promising to work with in the first place: this just seems a huge waste of a great many people’s time, talent and money.