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‘Rags’ spotlights immigrant history in richly sung score

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TheatreWorks’ busy production of “Rags,” a musical about the Jewish immigrant experience at the turn of the 20th century, is onstage in Mountain View. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

Persecuted immigrants flee to America only to discover more persecution. Headline du jour? Perhaps. It is also a main theme of “Rags,” the TheatreWorks musical onstage in Mountain View.

Based on its 1991 studio recording, “Rags” sounded like a hit with its mix of arias, ballads and ethnic comedy, blending klezmer, ragtime and showtune pizzazz in a score composed by Charles Strouse (“Annie”), with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked”). It wasn’t.

The epic 1986 Broadway production, promoted as “an American opera” starring Teresa Stratas sank under its own weight after four performances.

That didn’t stop Theatreworks from making a Bay Area hit out of a right-sized 1989 revised show that forms the basis of the current revival. (The show is undergoing further changes for a fall production at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut.)

This version seems to yearn for huddled masses again. Joe Ragey’s grand, handsome set effectively conveys city bustle but dwarfs intimate solos and duets, and the sound balance by Jeff Mockus frequently favors orchestra and effects over performers.

The book by Joseph Stein (“Fiddler on the Roof”) also feels overly noisy, covering a lot of ground from the Jewish immigrant experience of turn of the 20th century New York.

Musical plotting staples of courtships (two) and romantic triangles (one) are buffeted by scenes of Irish political corruption, cultural assimilation, union organizing, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and Jew-on-Jew oppression as established immigrant thugs prey on the “greenhorn” arrivals. It is a passionately felt presentation, but too broad in scope.

What saves this “Rags” from being a stylish if tattered Ken Burns slide show is its exceptional cast.

At the center are Kyra Miller and Jonah Broscow as newcomers Rebecca and her son David. (Nic Roy Garcia plays David at select performances.)

Miller is an awe-inspiring amalgam of clear-eyed determination and maternal ferocity, and her sung performance is every bit as lush as predecessor Stratas, or Julia Migenes from the recording. Beside her, Broscow demonstrates wondrous talent, presence and focus for such a young actor.

The pair are surrounded by a stellar company of Bay Area musical treasures including standouts Noel Anthony as Rebecca’s errant husband, Michelle Drexler, Teresa Foss, Brian Herndon, Benjamin Pither and Christopher Reber.

High praise also goes to Danny Rothman as Rebecca’s new flame Saul, Darlene Popovic and Donald Corren in their sweetly funny late-blooming romance, and Julie Benko, whose beautifully tragic Bella sees the tarnish in the promised streets of gold.

REVIEW
Rags
Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, closes April 30
Tickets: $35 to $86
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org

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