(Lower) East Side Story

rags

The original Broadway production of Rags in 1986 was a notorious flop, running for just four performances. Despite the short run, it received five Tony nominations, including a nod for Best Original Score, and cast member Judy Kuhn gave a memorably fiery performance of the title song on the Tony Awards telecast the following year; a recording was released in 1991 featuring most of the original Broadway cast, with Julia Migenes standing in for original star Teresa Stratas, and that recording is the reason people keep going back to the show to try and make it work. Rags has book problems – even now, after umpteen rewrites, Rags has book problems – but the score as represented on that recording includes the best music Charles Strouse has written for the theatre (‘Blame It On the Summer Night’ might very well be the single best song he has ever written for anything, and it’s certainly among the best individual songs written for Broadway in the past fifty years), and some of Stephen Schwartz‘s most moving lyrics. This show’s music is a potent blend of Broadway, jazz, klezmer and opera, and it’s often magnificent; the structure surrounding it, unfortunately, has never quite lived up to the power of that score.

The show is essentially a kind of sequel to Fiddler on the Roof, which also has a book by Joseph Stein. The plot follows immigrants as they arrive in New York in 1910(ish) and try to establish themselves as new Americans living in tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In all versions of the show – and there are many different versions of this show – the central figure is Rebecca Hershkowitz, a woman fleeing Russia with her young son David. Reading the Broadway production’s reviews, it’s clear there were too many subplots surrounding her; this rewrite, with a new book by David Thompson (Joseph Stein having died in 2010), premiered at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 2017, and it does a reasonably good job of paring back the show’s various plot strands into a reasonably coherent narrative that is driven by Rebecca’s struggle to build a life in New York for herself and her son. Alongside this new book, though, Strouse and Schwartz have taken scissors to their score, and unfortunately the result is not an improvement. A certain amount of this music’s grandeur has been lost – and that’s allowing for the fact that in a chamber production like this one you’re never going to get Michael Starobin‘s magnificent original orchestrations – and some songs have been cut up/split/re-sequenced in ways that don’t completely make musical sense. Granted, this may be less of a problem if you’re less familiar with that 1991 recording than I am; even so, it seems a strange choice to make when the score has always been the piece’s biggest asset.

This production, at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, makes a very strong case for the material, though, and director Bronagh Lagan redeems herself here for her abysmal revival of Promises, Promises at the Southwark Playhouse a couple of years ago, which was so bad that her name on the credits almost stopped me from buying a ticket for this. There’s a real sense of community among the cast, Gregor Donnelly’s set somehow makes stacks of suitcases resemble the Lower East Side tenement blocks around which most of the plot takes place, the band (four musicians backstage augmented by four actor-musicians among the ensemble) sounds terrific, and Rebecca Trehearn is giving an absolutely luminous performance as Rebecca. No, she doesn’t have the kind of huge operatic voice you hear in Julia Migenes’s performance on the recording (and that audiences at the original Broadway production must have heard from Theresa Stratas), but she’s a glorious singer and an honest actor, and her rendition of Rebecca’s big anthem ‘Children of the Wind’ at the climax of the second act is very moving indeed.

There’s an excellent ensemble surrounding her, with particularly memorable work from Lydia White as Bella, the young woman Rebecca befriends on the boat to America, from Valda Aviks as a shrewd but charming widow with her eyes on Bella’s father, and from Robert Tripolino as Sal, an Italian union organiser. The choral singing is terrific, particularly in the complex, syncopated ‘Greenhorns’ near the top of the show and the reprise of ‘Children of the Wind’ in the finale. Everybody does their best with the dialogue, and the book – yes, even in this newly-revised version – lets everybody down. Inevitably given the way the show has been chopped and changed so much over the years, we don’t have a cast of characters here so much as a parade of stereotypes. It’s been refashioned from an ensemble piece into what more or less amounts to a vehicle for the actor playing Rebecca, but Thompson doesn’t give her enough to play with. We know she escaped a pogrom, that her husband is dead (that’s a rewrite, and a smart one; her husband was a significant – and obnoxious – character in the original version of the show, and her backstory works better if she’s a widow), that she’s a decent woman and a good mother,  that she can sew, and that arriving in America gives her a push towards a far more independent lifestyle than she’d imagined for herself in Russia… and that’s more or less it, and it’s a story that’s been told many times before, usually more compellingly than it is in Thompson’s book.

Some significant musical material has been cut, too, including a late-in-act-two aria called ‘Dancing With the Fools’; that cut in particular robs Rebecca of a certain amount of depth, although Trehearn somewhat manages to paper over the cracks. Songs are cut up and split apart in ways that are baffling if you know the score from the recording; we hear, for example, the verse of ‘Children of the Wind’ a full act and a half before we hear the (beautiful) refrain. Characters have been cut, new characters have been introduced, and some musical material has been switched between characters, not always to good effect; it makes theatrical sense to turn the title song into the Act One finale, but since this version of the show is Rebecca’s story rather than Bella’s, the song is made into a duet between Rebecca and Bella rather than a solo for Bella. That might not be a problem if the lyrics had been completely rewritten, but they haven’t been, and the song – a howl of rage at having travelled across an ocean to live in poverty in a slum – does not entirely fit the character Trehearn has established by that point in the show, although there’s absolutely nothing wrong with her performance of it. The main portion of the song sounds like the kind of outburst that would come from a much younger woman, probably one who isn’t a mother – which of course fits the character it was originally written for. In the original version of the song, Bella’s father tries to talk her down; here, those lines are given to Bella, and arguments written from the perspective of a middle-aged father just sound plain unconvincing coming from a late-teenage girl. The (re)writing in that section of the show significantly undercuts both the performers and the song; it’s still a powerful moment, but – like a lot of the show – it would be so much more powerful if the lyrics consistently sounded as if they were written for the character(s) singing them.

Having said that, it’s worth seeing. This is not a show that’s going to be done often in the UK, and even though this production messes with the score in ways that don’t improve it, the best moments are certainly memorable, and while Bronagh Lagan doesn’t completely solve every problem in the writing, this is a strong production of difficult material, and it’s wonderful to see a regional fringe theatre take this material on and do such a loving job with it.

There are, however, a couple of things Hope Mill could (still) learn about the audience experience. Now, yes, I booked for the first preview, and first previews happen after a rush of activity that is sometimes difficult to complete within the allotted time. The show I saw was in excellent shape and you’d never have guessed it was the first public performance. HOWEVER, the performance ended up beginning thirty minutes late, and I’m afraid that demonstrates a certain disdain for the audience. This is Greater Manchester, not London; the transport system here shuts down earlier than you might expect (and certainly earlier than it should), and that’s even more the case the further you go from the city centre. For me, that thirty-minute delay was the difference between being able to get all the way home by tram/bus and having to use a taxi for the last part of the journey. The cost of the taxi won’t break me, but it’s money that needn’t have been wasted; there was an apology from the director at the top of the show, but it was sufficiently vague that it did nothing to dispel the suspicion that this production’s creative team consider themselves more important than their audience, which is exactly the wrong way around. Stay later the night before, show up earlier on the day, but fix your problems on YOUR time, not mine, and don’t waste my money because you failed to meet a deadline.

And when you advertise that your lobby/cafe/bar will be open from ninety minutes before showtime for drinks/coffee/light meals/whatever, it is unacceptably rude to keep customers who show up at the opening time you’ve advertised on your website and on the tickets waiting outside the door for twenty minutes because the director and her creative team haven’t got their shit together. That, again, suggests an attitude towards customers that is somewhere between disdain and contempt, particularly since at this theatre’s location there is nowhere else to go. Hope Mill, don’t get me wrong, is a wonderful facility, and a real asset to Manchester’s cultural scene – but the arrogance with which they treated patrons last Saturday night isn’t a good look for them. The work they present is fascinating; their manners, unfortunately, seem to leave a great deal to be desired.

 

hope mill

 

 

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The heat is off in Saigon

miss saigon palace manchester

I’m old. I saw the original London production of Miss Saigon way, way back in 1989 – September 23rd, 1989, in fact – on the first Saturday matinee after it opened. Yes, I saw Jonathan Pryce, and yes, I saw (and slightly winced at) the eye makeup (not to mention at the yellowface elsewhere in the cast, because Pryce wasn’t the only white actor cast as a Vietnamese character) – and yes, I loved it. Even at not-quite-seventeen I could pick all kinds of holes in it, but it blew me away. I loved the music, I loved Nicholas Hytner‘s production, and Lea Salonga gave what is still just about as good a performance as I’ve ever seen.

From there to here is quite a distance, and in more ways than one. I’m older, the show is older, I haven’t seen it “live” since a return visit a few years into the original London run, and the world in general – most of it, anyway – is at least a little bit more woke when it comes to issues of postcolonialism and representation and all the rest of it than it was three decades ago. It still offers a rather uneasy Western view of south-east Asia – far more uneasy, in some ways, than something like The King and I, which is so far removed from reality that it’s probably best taken as a fairytale – and while the show’s point of view is undoubtedly that America’s involvement in Vietnam was disastrous and damaging for everybody involved, the show’s writers begin to develop a thesis about how American complacency contributed to an ongoing tragedy after the war was over and they don’t take it nearly far enough, particularly in the last third of the second act when the melodrama at the centre of the plot kicks into gear.

That plot, though, is the same as it always was: a smarter-than-it-looks rehash of Madam Butterfly in which an American GI meets and very quickly falls for a Vietnamese bar girl in the last days before the fall of Saigon; he fails to get her out with him when he’s forced to evacuate, and when, years later, he finds out she’s survived and has a child, he and his new American wife offer to support the child but refuse to give him a home in America, with tragic consequences. Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr., the show’s original librettists, find more light and shade than you’d expect within this scenario (this production credits “additional lyrics”, none of which are an improvement over the originals, to Michael Mahler), although they possibly still don’t find quite enough, and while some of Claude-Michel Schönberg‘s music is bombastic and thuddingly banal, some of it is very lovely indeed. It’s always been to the show’s great credit that despite some gratuitously Hallmark-card lyrics, the Vietnamese heroine, Kim, is portrayed as a woman of immense strength and courage rather than as a lovelorn sap. It’s equally to the show’s credit that Chris, the Pinkerton figure, isn’t simply a colonial shit or a stereotypical Ugly American, and that Ellen, his American wife, is never portrayed as a villain either – Chris suffers as a result of leaving Kim in Vietnam, and Ellen is perfectly willing to help support a child she didn’t know about. That their support – or rather, their western complacency – imposes boundaries may be the engine that drives the melodrama towards the climax of the second act, but the writing isn’t as one-dimensional as it could have been. There are shades of grey here, and an understanding that well-meaning people sometimes do not behave well when confronted with complex moral decisions. In this kind of steamroller of a blockbuster musical, those shades of grey are relatively rare.

Those shades of grey, though, don’t entirely survive intact in the production currently playing in Manchester, which is the touring iteration of the revival that was recently seen in the West End and on Broadway (and on DVD). As directed – mostly in the sense of directing traffic – by Laurence Connor, this is a very efficient reading of the show: the big moments are all present and correct, including the (admittedly still dazzling) helicopter effect in the Fall of Saigon scene, and the actors all emote the hell out of their big numbers, and there is absolutely no depth or complexity in almost all of the performances. It’s loud and crass and sometimes even slightly distasteful in a way the original production never was (yes, even despite the original production’s yellowface): Nicholas Hytner’s original production, even years into the run with the umpteenth replacement cast, told a story about the tragic aftermath of the Vietnam war, whereas this production, despite being smaller in scale and budget, takes the tragic aftermath of the Vietnam war and makes a spectacle out of it. There’s a giant statue of Ho Chi Minh, a Saigon bar, various interiors, a dragon dance, twirling ribbons, projected film of orphaned American-Vietnamese children, a Cadillac, a shiny chrome representation of the head of the Statue of Liberty, and a more-or-less life-size (model) helicopter that lands on the stage – but there’s no emotional content at all, just a careful facsimile of it. It’s not that any of the performances are bad, exactly – indeed, this production is, by and large, very, very well-sung. It’s that every last scrap of subtlety appears to have been ironed out of a piece that, while more subtle than it could have been, was never that subtle to begin with. How unsubtle is it? There’s more than one instance in which a character stands/kneels centre stage, face contorted in a careful imitation of anguish, and screams “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”. That did not happen – and I mean did not happen, not once – in the original production.

As for individual performances, they’re mostly, well… accurate. Everybody hits their notes and their marks, and nearly everybody seems completely devoid of inner life. There are two honourable exceptions: Vinny Coyle’s Chris, who sings the role very well indeed and works strenuously to put back some of the shades of subtlety that have largely been bleached – and I chose that word very carefully – out of this production, and Red Concepción as the Engineer, the Pandarus-like pimp whose bar/whorehouse is the venue for Kim and Chris’s first meeting, and whose machinations get Kim and her child out of Vietnam at the end of the first act. Concepción’s Engineer is gleefully, bracingly nasty, sung with show-stopping fervour, and somehow believably real in a way that eludes nearly everyone else.  Coyle, incidentally, is an understudy, though you’d never have guessed, and his appearance in the role was not announced in the theatre before the performance, which is inexcusable. As Kim, Sooha Kim has a lovely voice, but doesn’t manage to transcend the production’s essential hollowness. And it’s a tiny role, but Acielle Santos’s Gigi – the prostitute who sings The Movie in my Mind, which used to be my favourite song in the score before it was disembowelled by this production’s lyric rewrites – exemplifies the problem with most of the performances here: she has a great voice, and she sings the song very well indeed, but the emotions are all on the surface. She sobs through it, ends the number in tears, and the moment is far more powerful (as, in the theatre, many moments are more powerful) if the performer doesn’t emote the song to death. In the original cast – you can even hear this on the original London cast recording – Isay Alvarez brought a devastating, absolutely haunting dignity to the song; it was very moving indeed, but it was moving because it was performed with restraint. In this production, the actress weeps all the way through the song’s climax – and because she weeps, we don’t.

Elsewhere, Connor repeats Hytner’s one big misstep, and shows a slide-show of real Vietnamese orphans during the act two opener, a (terrible) song called Bui-doi, which is basically a (God help us) raise-the-roof showstopper about mixed-race orphans trapped in a society where they’re largely shunned. In Hytner’s production this was crass, but there was at least a genuine emotional impulse behind the song (and Peter Polycarpou gave a very, very good performance indeed as the ex-solder who sings it); here there isn’t, which means the plight of these poor children merely becomes set-dressing in an expensive western theatrical spectacle, and it’s spectacularly tasteless.

The show itself, though, is solid enough – even given that the writing is far from unimpeachable – that it works on some level even in less than ideal circumstances. In many ways, this touring production is impressive: as I said, it’s sung very well indeed. The orchestrations are reduced, but reduced carefully; fifteen musicians are never going to sound like the original production’s twenty-four, and the lack of a larger string section contributes significantly to the near-complete absence in this production of the fine emotional shading that made the original so powerful. The band never sounds bad, but they never sound as good either; this is a show that really needs a big, lush sound, so it’s inevitably diminished by the smaller orchestra. The special effects are terrific, particularly in a touring production – the helicopter effect is superb (technology can do things now that just were not possible in 1989) – but when this story, the most nakedly human and intimate of all the big 1980s megamusicals, becomes a show dominated by special effects, it’s a problem. The effects were immense in 1989 too, but you walked out of the theatre remembering Lea Salonga and Simon Bowman, not the helicopter and the Ho Chi Minh statue. Now, because the performances are mostly painted with such a broad emotional brush, you barely remember the people at all, and the result is a show that’s impressive to look at but emotionally empty. Everybody works hard, but this Miss Saigon, in the end, is the equivalent of watching a hurriedly-made Saturday morning cartoon version of something that was originally written for grown-ups.