Review - RAGS at the Park Theatre

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Fiddler on the Roof - last seen in London last year when the Menier Chocolate Factory revival transferred to the West End's Playhouse Theatre - is indisputably one of the greatest of all Broadway musicals. It's a sweeping, soaring tale of the circumstances that led to the diaspora of Eastern European Jews out of Russia, some of whom in the show are said to be emigrating to America. It had a book by Joseph Stein; 22 years after its 1964 Broadway opening, Stein returned to the theme in another Broadway musical called RAGS, chronicling what happened after their arrival in New York.

But whereas Fiddler famously became the first musical to run for over 3,000 performances on Broadway - a record it held until it was eclipsed by the original production of Grease - RAGS quickly expired on Broadway after just four official performances in 1986. Yet it wasn't for lack of pedigree - the alternately tuneful and heartfelt music was by Charles Strouse, who also scored such hits as Bye Bye Birdie and Annie; and the lyrics were by Stephen Schwartz, the lyricist-composer whose credits up to them included such long-runners as Godspell and Pippin, more recently followed by Wicked. 

Now the show has been formally revised by Schwartz and new book writer David Thompson, and makes a hugely welcome return to London (it was previously seen here in its original version in a production at the Bridewell in 2001). Even if the show's epic canvas and large cast inevitably feel a little cramped on the small stage of Park 200, and it also has an undeniable sentimentality that some may find a little hard to swallow, it has a heartfelt sincerity and yearning poignancy that swept me away.

This is mainly driven by the alternately tender and lovely melodies that owe a conscious and evocative debt to period music of the time, including jazz, ragtime and Klezmer street music (several of the cast double up as a klezmer band, playing violin, accordion and clarinet). But there are also several stand-out individual numbers that emerge from this canvas of haunting themes, including such showstoppers as "Blame it on the Summer Night" (a beautiful ballad gorgeously sung by Carolyn Maitland's Rebecca and Alex Gibson-Giorgio as Italian immigrant Sal) and the richly anthemic "Children of the Wind", which Maitland brings a soaring depth to.

A stunningly integrated cast - including star turns from recent drama school graduate Martha Kirby as Bella, Oisin Nolan-Power as her suitor Ben, and the musical theatre veteran Dave Willetts making a welcome return to the London stage as Bella's father Avram - lend the music vocal firepower, beautifully accompanied by a small offstage band led by Joe Bunker.

Bronagh Lagan's production, first seen at the Hope Mill, Manchester's thrusting fringe powerhouse of musicals that has previously brought Hair, Pippin and Yank! to London, has been lovingly staged on an evocative set by Gregor Donnelly, constructed out of banks of old suitcases, to bring out the full power of this gorgeous, life-affirming show.

RAGS is at the Park Theatre to 8th February.

Originally published on

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