It wouldn’t mean much if I said that “Rags” is the best thing the Willows Cabaret has done since “Avenue Q” since that was the last show I saw there. But, it’s true! The small Willows Theatre has turned “Rags” into a major, accomplished production, thanks to an excellent cast, sharp and innovative direction and exemplary costumes and sets.
It’s not a perfect show, though; it’s no fault of director Erin Inman or his talented cast, especially Teressa Byrne in the leading role of Rebecca. The only thing that brings down “Rags” is its songs. Surprising, since composer Stephen Schwartz has been behind many of Broadway popular shows (“Pippin”, “Godspell” and “Wicked”). But the songs in “Rags” kind of miss the boat.
While the cast is in fine voice, there are very few numbers that stand out. Perhaps the first act’s “Blame it on the Summer Night” or the second act’s “Three Sunny Rooms” are memorable. But for the most part, like the show “The Light in the Piazza,” it’s a great, well-executed story with songs you forget by the time you get to your car.
“Rags,” which ran only four performances on Broadway but was nominated for Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Actress, tells the story of Russian immigrants who come to the 1900s New York, seeking new opportunities and happiness. They soon learn that life in the new world isn’t what it seems like in movie magazines as they struggle and cope to make ends meet while working in sweat shops, leading to a well-staged union strike.
Byrne’s soprano voice hits all the right chords, reaching deep into the audience’s hearts. She is well paired romantically with Benjamin Pither as the Union organizer and also has great scenes with Nicole Frydman, who does amazing things in the role of Bella, whom Byrne’s character befriends on the boat to America. Frydman is vibrant in this production, so it hits the audience hard when you see the sparkle leave her eyes as she’s “imprisoned” into a life of what her father thinks is safe and best for her.
I could go on about everyone who is a standout in the cast, but that would just have me writing about every person in the show. Even the child actors are real and convincing, which is hard to do…so kudos to Inman for helping make them believable. Other standouts in the cast include James Sgambati in a multitude of roles including a comical Hamlet and an unsympathetic husband. Linda Sciacqua and Dean Creighton also shine, especially in their scenes together. This cast can take you from heartfelt to heartbreak in a matter of moments.
And now…I seldom go to the Willows Cabaret without also being delighted in their food and beverage options that always have some connection to the show itself. While I ate before going this time, I do feel I missed a good meal with their Quiches and Polish Dogs. Their desserts also looked really tasty with Challah Bread Pudding, Floats and Sundaes, which I had to have. I also splurged and tried one of their show-themed cocktails and it was fantastic. I had the Brand New World, which had Kahlua, Bailey’s, Frangelico and Vodka. But I was also tempted by the Statue of Libertea (Long Island Iced Tea) and some other cleverly titled cocktails.
Back to the show…“Rags” may not be a show in which you’ll remember the songs. But the story and this production will stay with you for a long time.
“Rags” is playing at the Willows Cabaret at 636 Ward Street in Martinez. It plays through February 27. You can get tickets and learn more at www.willowstheatre.org.