Joseph Stein's book for "Fiddler on the Roof" spoke of life on the other side, in the fictional but impoverished Jewish village of Anatevka. In "Rags," he tried to tell the after-story -- what would have happened to Tevye once he emigrated to New York?
The problem was, Stein got Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick to write the music for Fiddler, and thus produced some of the most memorable theater music of all time. For Rags, Stein worked with
Steven Schwartz and Charles Strouse, no lightweights, but the songs are at the same time too lyric-heavy and not musical enough. There are good songs, not great songs, good characters but no memorable ones, plenty of angst but little joy, ample rhyming craft but, above all --- no Tevye. No larger-than-life character who sings all the great songs, who grabs the audience in a bear hug and will not let them go.
Yes, Jack Kerouac was correct: comparisons are odious. But how can you not compare these two shows, written by the same writer, one the result of the other? Musically, especially, "Rags" just cannot help but remind us of what is missing.
Act One feels long; most of the better songs are in Act Two. We liked Travis Leland as Ben. Likewise Darlene Popovic as Rachel, whose romantic interest in Donald Corren's Avram leads to our favorite song from the show, "Three Sunny Rooms." Julie Benko as Bella makes us cheer for her. It is her would-be romance with Ben that give us characters who seem to be in love with each other.
But the show hinges on the more traditional love triangle between Kyra Miller as Rebecca, her husband Nathan (Noel Anthony) and Danny Rothman as the labor-organizer Saul. But really, there are no fireworks among any of them. We don't care all that much. And that's a good thing, because nothing much happens.
The Irish bosses shake down the Jewish immigrants. The white-shoed plutocrats dance through their lives. Don't forget the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. There's a lot going on, and everyone is singing about it.
RATINGS ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Rags" Two Stars. This places it below the Julie Andrews line for recommendation. See Sideboard for explanation of ratings.
We would like to be more positive about this production as a good many people are involved in getting it to the stage, and it is nice to the eye. But too many blown lines and scratchy vocals, plus a story that stays on one emotional level, make it difficult to feel confident that this new adaptation is about to make "Rags" into riches.
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through April 30