Monday, June 3, 2013

Beautiful Soup Theater Company Ladles Out A Superlative "RAGS!!!!!!!!!!!"

                                         Erin Elizabeth Eichhorn is currently filling shoes once occupied by Judy Kuhn and Crista Moore.  The happy surprise is they fit her superbly.

                                           Midway through the first act of this theater company's presentation of the Charles Strouse-Stephen Schwartz musical, "RAGS," Eicchorn's  character, Bella Cohen, has had it.  She has had it with being closeted indoors by her father, Avram, who treats her like a vassal still attached to the old country, she hates the shifty Americans who attack her for her Jewishness; like all young folk whose expectations are slighted, she is frustrated, and she confronts her father, head on.   Many in the audience--and I am certainly one--can empathize with Bella, and channel her feelings.  And these feelings explode, when the music begins, and Miss Eicchorn starts  to sing "RAGS," arguably one of the most driving, compelling and dramatic title songs created for any musical show.  She mimes every bit of anguish out of Bella, with her heart stopping rendition, (and this is not an easy song to sing!) so much so, that, good as the rest of the show's score is, nothing ever tops this moment!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

                                             Like another cult classic of the Eighties, "Merrily We Roll Along," "RAGS" is a show that you can see several different times, and it will never be the same.  When the American Jewish  Theatre staged it in 1991, (where Crista Moore did Bella) this title song ended Act One of that production!
It was a daring move! And powerful!  Here, they  seem to have gone back to the original, though, if I remember correctly, the child David is the one who is attacked, and the curtain came down on Rebecca (played in 1986 by Teresa Stratas) holding David (Josh Blake) in her arms, Pieta style, while reprising "Children Of The Wind."  I wish this production had kept that.

                                               Nevertheless, those who have never seen the show, but have wondered about it, and Theater Queens who know it intimately, embracing it outright, for its lush, rich, and haunting score, (which gets it produced) I urge to get down to The Connelly Theatre on East 4th Street, to see what all the fuss about "RAGS" has been about, and continues to be.

                                                 Miss Eichhorn is luminous as Bella, whose character seems to be more fleshed out.  More time seems to be spent on the boat trip to America, then I recall in previous stagings, and there is a lovely song, "If We Never Meet Again," sung both by Rebecca and Bella, which I do not recall ever hearing before.  I don't recall, from past productions, seeing Bella attacked openly in the streets, both shortly after she arrives, and during the staging of "Rags."    Both "Children Of The Wind" and "Greenhorns" seem to have been placed differently in  this presentation, and it works

                                                   So does the fact that the production is staged simply, on a proscenium, with slide projections, up center, leaving the actors, and score to tell the story.  And with a minimum of sets and props.
The director, Steven Carl McCasland, clearly admires the show, understands it, and mimes it for its assets.

                                                    "RAGS" is full of so many great moments.  When Anna Kirkland, as Rebecca, and Kenneth Kyle Martinez, as union organizer Saul, perform the haunting duet, "Wanting," it becomes another memorable moment from this show, made more so by the passion of its performers.

                                                       Everyone in this show is long on passion, but some lack vocal power.
Not Miss Eichhorn, or Barnaby Edwards, playing Bella's love interest, Ben, who I swear, in look and voice, is channeling Lonny Price, who played Ben in the 1986 original.  See for yourselves, if you don't believe me.

                                                         Anna Kirkland superbly acts Rebecca, and sings her well for the most part.  It is a killer role, and she deserves plaudits.  But I wish more work had been done on strengthening her voice, for there are moments she has ("Look, David!!!!!!! Learn, David!!!!!!!!!! Now, it belongs to you!!!!!!!") that have to soar from the sustaining power of her ability to hold these notes.  But Miss Kirkland lacks this, or needs more work.  She does not undermine the role by any means, but she does not mime it to the max, the way Miss Eichhorn and Mr. Martinez do.  And this extends too, to young Jeremiah Burch III, an otherwise superb David!!!!!!!!!!!

                                                           It has been twenty two years since I have gone near "RAGS," and the minute I heard those haunting opening notes, tears began streaming down my face, and did not stop till the final note was sung.  The show still has the sustaining power to move one, and I was not the only one, by any means, overwhelmed by the performance.

                                                           What is oft regarded as a theatrical curriosity has been revived in the most innocuous of places.  Imagine if "RAGS" had a more full scaled presentation, and why the Hell hasn't ENCORES done it????????  Meanwhile, the Beautiful Soup Company is to be commended to be introducing to some, while inducing memories in others,  the pleasures of a neglected theatrical masterpiece!!!!!!!!!!!!!


HarlowFan said...

I saw this this afternoon, and while I enjoyed it very much, it could have been better cast in some of the supporting roles. The older couple, Avram and Rachel were pretty bad. Especially her. Their performances were at the level of Long Island community theatre. The little boy was VERY hard to understand when he either spoke or sang. I really admired the lead, Anna Kirkland. That is a tough role, and I thought she sang it beautifully. Maybe she improved in the few days since you saw it? I agree that the girl who played Bella really delivered in the title song. The guy who played Ben, who also sold me my ticket at the door, WAS similar to Lonny Price, but he just couldn't lose his British accent! I thought the prayer after the fire was very moving and well done. This show would not close on Broadway after 4 performances today, I don't think. Hell, it's alot better than some of the crap on the boards today! I think it may have also been an inspiration for the creators of Ragtime, which is admittedly, a much better show. Anyway, thanks for writing about this production. I wasn't aware of it, and got a ticket based on your recommendation. I'm glad I did, as I had never seen a production before. Now let's hope Roundabout stages a revival next season with Ms. Mueller who will certainly sing the hell out of those songs!

The Raving Queen said...

Harlow Fan,
So glad you went. I think this show should be experienced because of the beautiful score. I urge you to listen to the cast CD.

Avram was one of the weak points, and one of the ones, like the child David, who should have been miked. I love the song "Three Sunny Rooms;" I think the show needs it!
Just as I thought the guy doing Ben was channeling Lonny Price, I thought Rachel was doing the same with Marcia Lewis! Not nearly as good as Marcia, though.

Did I tell you my connections to this show? I saw the original by accident when I was dating a guy who was a Company Manger for Broadway shows. He sent me to it for free! In 1988, with the blessings of Charles Strouse and working with him, I actually performed the title song in a staff show here at work! And in 1991, when the American Jewish Theater did it, with Crista Moore as Bella, and Ann Crumb as Rebecca, pared down to a cast of 9, with only a piano as the orchestra, I went three times. The second viewing, I noticed something off, and by intermission I realized what it was--they had taken "Brand New World" out that night. I was incensed, and walked out into the lobby, confronting this guy with a clipboard, who I thought was the stage manager! Turned out to be the lyricist--Stephen Schwartz!! He asked me for more suggestions, and I told him. When I went back for the third time, "Brand New World" was back in, and all my suggestions had been used.

Back to this production. If you notice in your program, one of the actresses understudies Bella. I wonder why? If anyone should be understudied it is Rebecca, a killer part. As for the Roundabout and Jessie Mueller,I am still trying to find a way to get in. Any contacts, please let me know. Interestingly, the one role I hear not yet cast for the reading is Bella. Which I thought, originally, Jessie was doing. Imagine my thrill when I discovered she was to do Rebecca!

HarlowFan said...

Wow, you have a really strong connection to this show! Don't have any connections for the reading, but I bet Roundabout will stage a revival with Jessie. You'll probably levitate! lol

Orlando said...

I have seen this show and while I totally agree with you on Erin and her stupendous role as Bella, I disagree with you on Anna Kirlands role as Rebecca! She was astounding and amazing. He voice was beautiful and brought tears to my eyes. She held every note effortlessly.

Orlando said...

I also must mention that the direction of the show was superb. Mr. Steven McCasland did an outstanding job with this show.

Unknown said...

Regarding the comments by HarlowFan and The Raving Queen regarding Avram and Rachel. First off, it it easy to slam using a pseudonym. I am using my own name and, yes, I played Avram. A performance is based on TWO things - the material and the interpretation by the performer thereof. The comments that follow are, by no means, to be taken as a criticism of Steve McCasland. He reviewed and consolidated the SIX librettos that exist of the the show. Five more were written after the initial run. From these six, he developed a seventh from which he drew the best material available. That being said, here goes . . .

Rachel and Avram were painted in very broad strokes with nowhere near the subtle shadings given to Bella, Rebecca and Saul.

Rachel goes from condescending harridan to love/affection/intimacy/sex-starved widow very quickly as evidenced in the number "Penny a Tune."

Avram, from the beginning, is a single father who wants the best for his daughter and is locked into his traditions. All we know from the script is that he studied Talmud and was a teacher.

Rachel and Avram are thrown together only by the circumstance of working together in the market. There is no other commonality other than that of David helping the both out.

In act 2, prior to the song "Three Sunny Rooms," Avram has just been read the riot act by his quickly maturing daughter. Rachel interrupts his reverie and almost immediately comes onto him.

Avram's primary concern as a single parent in a strange country is to protect his daughter and he has just been thwarted. He is trying to figure out what is going on with his daughter. Why is Bella rebelling? What has he done wrong? Why should he pay attention to this very forward woman?

There is NO development let alone indication of an interest on his part, in either plot or script, for Rachel. It just happens.

This is why the parts are played broadly. It is an absurd situation.

Finally, with the final scene, Avram, who is so deeply in mourning and wracked with guilt that he can only stand and stare out a window - quite reasonable under the circumstances - suddenly comes to his senses and becomes his old assured self thanks to Rebecca's speech?

Before making disparaging statements, one should THINK. Consider with what the performer has to work. There is a difference between hurtful, thoughtless and baseless criticism and a reasoned critique.

By the way, Charles Strouse attended the opening and expressed his pleasure at my interpretation of the part as well as the interpretation of Rachel.

The Raving Queen said...


I will start with you, by responding to both your comments, which I did not discover till yesterday!
I thought Miss Kirkland did a wonderful job with the very difficult role of Rebecca. There were moments, both in song and acting, when she brought me to tears.

And, if you read again what i wrote, I remarked how well the director admires and understands the piece, and how everyone in the company brought a great deal of passion to it.

That said, I did see some spots which I thought needed tweaking--more work, if you will--in order to make an already strong presentation even stronger, letting its power come through even more.

In fact, had my schedule permitted it, I would have gone to this again! And I cannot say that about everything else I have seen this season!

The Raving Queen said...

Dear Mr. Dorph,
Please forgive my delayed response; I only discovered your comments, yesterday. And before I respond to yours, look at what I said to Orlando; I will try not to repeat myself.

Having worked both sides of the footlights myself, I have the greatest empathy and respect for those who do. I know what it takes.

Without trying to be defensive, I think you need to go back and reread what I said. I have no doubt you worked very hard on Avram; a character, incidentally, with a better arc than Rachel, so you had more to work with. I will say the final moment--with you at the window, Rebecca's speech, then Avram coming around, was one of the best in the show.

However, I did see some spots where I thought the work needed tweaking in order to make something already strong even stronger, for full effect.

Your character analysis shows the degree of thought and work you gave to Avram. But nothing you said--including the several different versions of the show floating around out there--was anything I did not know and understand already. I knew and understood about RAGS long before you took your first steps on stage!!!!!

In writing what I did, I wanted to convey my admiration for the company succeeding with an ambitious undertaking, and to get others down there to see it. Several people, who enjoyed it, said were it not for my piece, they would never have thought of going!

Lastly, does what anyone says really matter. When I would perform. what was important to me was whether or not, at the end of the evening I was satisfied with my performance. And I can tell you, that varied! If you are satisfied with the work you have done, that is all that should matter.

I was glad to hear Charles Strouse attended; I was wondering that, myself. I am sure he liked what he saw; the work was solid, and he is a kind and gracious gentleman.

But you have to keep things in perspective. The show is called RAGS, not AVRAM!!!!!!!!