(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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Miracle of Miracles

fiddler-everyman

It’s an old idea, but it’s been out of fashion for so long that this possibly qualifies as innovation. For this season, instead of casting each show individually, Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre has hired a resident company of actors. All five shows in their season will be cast from the same pool of actors, and in the summer all five will play in rep for a month. Once upon a time, not all that long ago, it was relatively common for a regional theatre to hire actors on this basis; these days, it’s almost unknown. It’s a bold step – and if this revival of Fiddler on the Roof, the season’s first production, is anything to go by, the gamble is likely to pay off in spades.

Inevitably there are going to be compromises. Since everybody has been cast for their suitability for several productions, the company includes relatively few musical theatre performers. This isn’t going to be the best-sung Fiddler you’ve ever seen. It also isn’t the starriest, the biggest, or the most musically lush – this is regional theatre, budgets are tight, and we can at least be grateful the cast aren’t forced to play the musical instruments themselves. The compensation? These actors tell their story simply and beautifully, working together as an ensemble in a way that finds a great deal of resonance in a musical that is essentially about a community. In the 1994 Topol revival at the London Palladium (I saw, I suffered, and Topol played the role so s l o w l y that by the time intermission rolled around it was 1995) you were basically watching The Tevye Show. While this production has a (very) fine Tevye, that isn’t the case here.

What you also get, partly because this is a relatively small theatre and the production is played in the round, which means you’re seeing the show in close-up, is a stronger sense than usual of the material’s contemporary relevance. Joseph Stein’s book, based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, isn’t simply the story of a family dealing with the gradual erosion of their traditional (religious) way of life. It’s an examination, as well, of a community of people who are forced to leave their homes. Over the past several years, we’ve seen pictures on the news of migrants leaving war zones that are closer than we think to where we live, and undertaking shockingly arduous or risky journeys in order to find safety for themselves and their families. We’ve all seen the pictures of migrant boats in the Mediterranean, bodies washed up on beaches, exhausted people walking for weeks through southern Europe in search of a home where their children won’t be bombed. We also, shamefully, have a government whose response to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean was to cancel funding for patrol boats on the grounds that a few hundred drownings might serve as a deterrent – they put it a little more nicely, but that was the general idea – and who have recently (disgustingly) reneged on their pledge to allow unaccompanied child migrants into the country under the Dubs Amendment. Across the Atlantic, there is now a peculiarly orange President whose understanding of international relations would be unbecoming in a moderately well-read four-year-old, and whose central campaign pledge was to Build A Wall right across the USA’s southern border in order to keep Mexicans out (Q: How do Mexicans feel about Trump’s wall? A: They’ll get over it.) Fiddler on the Roof is set in Russia in 1905, but similar stories play out on every continent, every day, and they are not specific to any particular culture. Change a few names and a few details, and you could set the plot in Syria or South Sudan last year. Watching this revival, you can’t help but be aware of how toxic the word ‘migrant’ has become in certain circles in Europe and the US. Now, just as it was 112 years ago, people who are forced to flee their homes by no means always meet with kindness when they arrive somewhere safe. Fiddler on the Roof tells the beginning of the story; we already know how it ends, and the ending doesn’t do us any credit.

None of which should be taken to imply that this production is an endless misery-fest. Under Gemma Bodinetz’s direction, the company offers a tremendously humane reading of the show. Save for one very clever, very simple flourish in the last minute or so of stage time, Ms. Bodinetz’s staging is absolutely straightforward: she and her cast tell the story simply and clearly, mining the joy and the humour in the material as well as the sadness in the show’s ending. The big set-pieces are all present and correct: the dream sequence is hilarious, the bottle dance is tremendous fun, and Sunrise, Sunset has possibly never been lovelier, even if it’s been more prettily sung. The small space helps: Philip Roth famously dismissed the show as “shtetl kitsch”, and that’s a fair-enough description of that faintly ghastly 1994 production at the Palladium, but this revival offers a quietly moving portrayal of a loving, cohesive community that has been, by the end of the second act, dispersed but not broken. There’s a strong sense of hope at the end of this production (at the Palladium, I lost the will to live fifteen minutes into If I Were A Rich Man, and by the end of the show, six months later, I no longer had any sensation in my buttocks and needed jump-leads to restart my brain), even though – as I said – we know perfectly well how the wider world treats refugees. The (minimal) violence, too, benefits from being seen in close-up. This is still, as written, the politest pogrom in history, but there’s a far greater sense of menace when the fight scene is happening right in front of you than you’d get from the fifteenth row with the action behind a proscenium arch.

As for the cast, they function so well as an ensemble that it’s almost unfair to single out individual performances. Patrick Brennan manages to play Tevye without invoking either Topol or Zero Mostel; his performance is simultaneously absolutely traditional and absolutely fresh, and he sets the tone for the rest of the production. Melanie La Barrie’s Golde is the perfect combination of warmth and steel, and Emily Hughes, in a very, very strong professional debut performance, is a lovely, moving Hodel. There’s tremendously detailed work, though, even from the actors in the smallest roles; what the production lacks in scale and slickness is more than made up in sheer heart. The physical production may be simple to the point of austerity – the ‘company season design’ is credited to Molly Elizabeth Lacey Davies, Jocelyn Meall & Michael Vale, and for this production it consists of lighbulbs hanging over the stage to suggest a starry sky, Tevye’s milk cart, a trestle table and a few chairs – but that simplicity simply pushes the focus onto the actors, and the actors really deliver. In an ideal world, it would be nice to have more than four musicians (keyboard, double bass, clarinet, guitar), but musical director/arranger George Francis does the score proud: this is a tiny production, but the smallness of the band works with the poverty of the setting, and the musicianship is impeccable.

As for that directorial flourish I mentioned: this isn’t a revisal. Nobody changes a word, nobody acts around the lines, and it’s performed absolutely in period – until the last minute or so of stage time. As Tevye and what’s left of his family start their long march out of Anatevka, the rest of the company fall in behind them, wearing contemporary clothing and carrying improvised contemporary luggage (plastic laundry bags etc). As I said, Fiddler on the Roof marks the beginning of a story we’ve been watching play out on the news right across Europe for a few years now (and in different forms, in different places, more or less since the beginning of recorded history); without being strident about it, and without messing with the text, this final tableau drives the point home to devastating effect. It’s a simple but breathtaking conclusion to a more or less perfect revival; I suppose I should admit that my favourite Bock and Harnick show is actually She Loves Me, but Fiddler is still a glorious piece of writing (albeit, as that revival at the Palladium loudly demonstrated, not bulletproof), and Bodinetz and her superb cast are well worth the trip to Liverpool.