Rich tapestry woven of `Rags'

Review: One of Broadway's biggest flops proves a triumph in Towson University's Maryland Arts Festival.

July 12, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Towson University's Maryland Arts Festival has found riches in "Rags."

The 1986 musical was one of Broadway's bigger flops. Its speedy demise was all the more surprising considering the credentials of its creators -- librettist Joseph Stein ("Fiddler on the Roof"), composer Charles Strouse ("Annie") and lyricist Stephen Schwartz ("Godspell").

At the Maryland Arts Festival, however, this moving, highly melodic, large-scale musical is the jewel of a three-show summer season that, in its entirety, is one of the strongest this festival has ever produced.

"Rags" isn't the first time the festival has risked resurrecting an unsuccessful Broadway musical that found new life in regional theaters. In 1993, Towson scored a triumph with "Chess," and it has another triumph here. Both shows were area premieres, and both had also been revised since Broadway.

A sort of continuation of Stein's "Fiddler," with a new set of characters, "Rags" tells the story of Jewish immigrants who arrive in this country in 1910. By all accounts, the original suffered from a confusing plot and a tendency to turn characters into symbols.

However, in this version, subtitled "Children of the Wind" and based primarily on the 1991 Sony CD, the subplots are all directly related to the central character, who is, in turn, more empathetic than symbolic.

Rebecca Hershkowitz (Libby Tomlinson-Gensler) comes to America with her young son David (Murray Fenstermaker) in hopes of finding a better life. First, however, she must find her husband (Scott Graham), who immigrated several years before.

While she searches and waits, Rebecca moves in with the family of a fellow immigrant named Bella (Cristen Susong) and works in a sweatshop, where the employees are being urged to strike by a union organizer (Phillip Collister) who takes a particular interest in Rebecca. Susong and Collister, both festival newcomers, are among the production's greatest assets.

Despite its clearer focus, the show still features numerous secondary characters, such as Bella's anxious peddler father (John Amato) and the talkative widow (Pebble Kranz) who falls in love with him. Their duet is one of the loveliest moments in the evening, and a subsequent mourning scene led by Amato is heart-rending.

Then there's Bella's suitor (Al Sgro), a trio of Tammany Hall politicians and even a Yiddish theater troupe. "Rags" boasts the largest cast -- and orchestra -- in the Maryland Arts Festival's history. But aided by Thom Bumblauskas' multi-purpose set and Georgia O'Daniel Baker's earth-toned costumes, director John W. Ford and choreographer Stephen Stone create stirring stage pictures with the show's 30-plus actors.

Yet "Rags" is always Rebecca's story, and the intelligence and powerful vocal quality Tomlinson-Gensler brings to the role keep us rooting for her.

There's a lot of talk in "Rags" about the need to feel safe. Although reviving "Rags" was far from a safe choice for the Maryland Arts Festival, the resulting production is remarkably sound. Broadway may have discarded "Rags," but stage director Ford and music director Michael Decker have fashioned it into a glorious garment.

Show times at Towson University's Stephens Hall Theater, 7900 York Rd., are 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and July 22, and 2 p.m. July 18, through July 24. Tickets are $19 and $21. Call 410-830-2787.

Amusing `Moon'

Playwright Ken Ludwig is a master of backstage comedies, as he proved in "Lend Me a Tenor" and the musical "Crazy for You." His 1995 farce "Moon Over Buffalo" is in the same vein -- a vein that has been mined to amusing effect at the Vagabond Players.

Set in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1953, the play adheres to Murphy's Law of Live Theater -- everything that can go wrong will -- and then some. Charlotte (Lynda McClary) and George Hay (Dave Gamble) are a theatrical couple who might euphemistically be described as the lesser Lunts. On the day the play takes place, they learn that movie director Frank Capra is flying into town to attend their matinee in hopes of casting them in his latest movie.

Unfortunately, Charlotte has walked out on philandering George, who has responded by embarking on a tour of Buffalo's saloons. One member of their struggling repertory company has quit because he hasn't been paid in two weeks; another is pregnant with George's baby and is off to see the doctor. And the remaining cast members can't remember whether they're performing "Cyrano de Bergerac" or "Private Lives."

Director Steve Goldklang has carefully choreographed the inherent confusion. The cast, however, falls victim to overacting, although this can be partly excused since these are supposed to be second-raters. Gamble is quite good at conveying the sense that George is always performing -- even when he's falling over in a drunken stupor.

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