Reviewed by Nikki Cotter
Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Aria Entertainment and Hope Mill Theatre are never ones to shy away from a challenge; turning a former cotton mill into an award-winning producing house a clear testament to their drive and determination; so it comes as no surprise that not only have they taken on the challenge of reimaging lesser known musical RAGS but have the added coup of legendary Broadway composer Stephen Schartz’s invaluable presence in the rehearsal rooms.
With a book by Joseph Stein (Fiddler On The Roof) music by Charles Strouse (Annie) and lyrics from Stephen Schwarz (Wicked) RAGS seems like it should have always been a hit yet the success never quite came. This UK premiere of a new version with a revised book by David Thompson directed by Hope Mill regular Bronagh Lagan sets about altering the destiny of RAGS and ensuring this relatively unknown musical is given the platform it deserves.
The joyful wit and melodic dialogue of Joseph Stein remain however David Thompson’s revisions allow the story to be told anew as we follow Jewish immigrant Rebecca (Rebecca Trehearn) as she bids to find a new life and a secure future for her and son David (Lochlan White) in America. Their penniless arrival at Ellis Island looks set to dictate their fate until kind-hearted Bella (Lydia White) whom Rebecca strikes up a friendship with on the journey convinces her father Avram (Michael S. Siegel) to vouch for the desperate pair. Rebecca and David are given a place to stay and her skills as a seamstress soon secure her employment however she is never far from rough seas as although the American dream may seem within reach it certainly won’t be without sacrifice leading to a battle of identity amidst a struggle of cultural assimilation.
The subject matter may sound heavy but it is treated with such love and warmth that light and dark marry beautifully with comedic and heart-warming moments shining through the emotional and poignant.
Rebecca Trehearn is pure star quality; she captures the gut-wrenching anguish of Rebecca with perfection and her determination to succeed in this hostile new world is profoundly moving. Her vocals are pitch perfect throughout while her stunning rendition of Children Of The Wind would melt the coldest of hearts, to see it delivered in such an intimate setting as Hope Mill is breath-taking.
Lydia White is superbly cast as Bella, her friendship with Rebecca feels believable and pure while her thrill at the prospect of the new life within her grasp is inspiring. Sam Peggs plays Bella’s love interest Ben with an innocent joy while Robert Tripolino as Italian trade unionist Sal makes for a wonderfully dramatic and entirely committed champion of both workers and human rights.
Heartening comedy is injected by the pairing of savvy widow Rachel (Valda Aviks) and Bella’s world-weary father Avram (Michael S. Siegel) the duo making for a wonderful comic double act. Special mention must also go to Lochlan White who at this evening’s performance played Rebecca’s son David, confident and charismatic as the young Jewish boy.
This is a real ensemble piece with praise being deserved by each and every member of the cast who bring this story to vibrant life with their stunning vocals and heartfelt performances, several doubling up as on stage musicians. Stephen Schwartz’s soaring score offers a real feast of fusion, in effect a melting pot of styles just like New York City both then and now.
Gregor Donnelly’s suitcase stacked set design and Derek Anderson’s atmospheric lighting combine perfectly to further bring this emotional story to life.
RAGS is beautifully executed theatre which will sweep you away with its gritty and poignant storytelling. The themes feel current and entirely relatable, the cast could easily be singing Make America Great Again rather than Take Our Country Back as the characters battle for acceptance and a sense of belonging in a hostile and at times cruel new world. The team have got this new version just right with the talented cast doing total justice to the cleverly crafted piece. Important and affecting theatre delivered with genuine heart.
RAGS is on at Hope Mill Theatre until Saturday 6th April tickets available here.