The streets are not paved with gold in “Rags.”
Huddled masses yearning to breathe free arrive in America only to find a country as beset by bigotry and greed as the ones they left in this scattershot immigrant story. Indeed, the Eastern European immigrants who flood into Manhattan in this predictable 19th-century tale soon find themselves stifled by stench and squalor.
With a book by Joseph Stein, famed for “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Rags” is a disappointing thematic sequel to the Tevye tale. This short-lived Broadway musical, which TheatreWorks first staged in 1989, imagines what might have happened to the villagers who made it across the sea to the new world.
It’s also an unabashedly sentimental story, bursting with lovely melodies by Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz, and it couldn’t be more topical in this era of border walls and travel bans. Certainly Robert Kelley delivers a big-hearted production with some touching performances and a sprawling tenement of a set design. Unfortunately the piece itself remains more of a musical pageant than a play. Overstuffed with archetypal characters that never deepen and social motifs that are listed rather than explored, “Rags” feels like a parade of cliches that occasionally breaks into song.
The journey begins at Ellis Island, beautifully evoked by Joe Ragey’s set design, where penniless Jewish immigrants flock into Lower Manhattan, their eyes filled with hope, even as the vultures gather eager to pick them clean.
Rebecca (the dulcet-voiced Kyra Miller), who is desperate to find her husband, lands in America with a little boy and no way to provide for him. She ends up toiling in a sweat shop for pennies, grateful to be taken in by a kindly old man (Donald Corren) and his daughter Bella (a radiant turn by Julie Benko).
The lamentable plight of the female factory workers, often locked into filthy quarters and paid starvation wages, is one of the many poignant themes touched on in “Rags.” Treated like dogs, some immigrants fight for their rights through the union, led by rabblerousers like the idealistic Saul (Danny Rothman). Others, like the street-smart Nathan (Noel Anthony) get ahead, no matter what. The most thought-provoking aspect of the musical may be its willingness to grapple with the paradoxes embedded in the American dream.
Unfortunately the musical rushes through so much of the immigrant experience in such a shallow manner that it ends up plumbing none of it deeply. Schwartz’s lyrics, while snappy, can come off as glib. When Rebecca’s son suffers a brutal beating at the hands of thugs, exhorting peddlers for protection money, she bemoans that they didn’t come to America to be “hurt again” or to be “dirt again.”
The insights would cut deeper if we cared more about the characters here. There are exceptions, such as Rothman’s palpable joy in the wooing scenes with Miller and Benko’s ebullience as Bella, but there’s not much in the way of emotional connection in this staging. Most of the characters are so thinly sketched they feel like symbols instead of people.
Some of the songs are beauties, such as ”Blame It on the Summer Night,” which Miller imbues with great yearning, but the pastiche of ballads, jazz and ragtime seems calculated to evoke a mood rather than drive the narrative. “Rags” has its charms but it’s more of a singing mural than a musical.
Book by Joseph Stein,music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, presented by TheatreWorks
Through: April 30
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $35-$86; 650-463-1960, www.theatreworks.org