Rags provides riches in one-off West End concert

Jane Martin reports on a charity concert staging of this rousing tribute to the early US immigrants who shaped modern music

Caroline Sheen as Rebecca in RAGS
Caroline Sheen as Rebecca in Rags
© James Wallace

On Monday, the Lyric Theatre set aside the glitz of Michael Jackson celebration Thriller Live! and staged a concert performance of Rags the Musical, in aid of Centrepoint.

On the face of it, there could scarcely be a greater gulf between the two shows – one featuring the King of Pop, the other tracing the stories of desperate Jewish immigrants heading to the US to escape persecution in the early 1900s.

But for Rags composer Charles Strouse, today’s rock and rap artists owe a huge debt to those ‘greenhorns’ from around the world, who had an incalculable influence on the future of music.

New York became a melting pot for the heady mix of dance, Irish, Klezmer and Slavic music that ultimately led to the birth of American jazz. And without that, says Strouse, there would have been no Scott Joplin,
no Irving Berlin or Beatles. Or indeed, one might add, no Michael Jackson.

The original 1986 Broadway production by Strouse, Joseph Stein (book) and Stephen Schwartz (lyrics), was not a commercial success. A 1991 studio recording of the score fared better, and Rags has since been streamlined by the original team.

However for this London staging, producer Katy Lipson has had to do some serious rights negotiating. The result is a ‘concert’ version of the show, with limited dialogue and a narrator to link the songs. After winning approval from Schwartz, the creative team has finally been able to present a semi-staged production in full costume, with a fabulous band on stage.

Crisply led by Caroline Humphris, the 11 musicians changed instruments at an extraordinary rate as they made up for the fact that the Rags score is intended for a total of 25 players.

The show is set in the Lower East Side of New York in 1910, and follows immigrants Rebecca and her son David, who have fled from murderous Cossack gangs. Caroline Sheen as the resilient Rebecca showed a thrilling vocal range and an engaging presence. Sebastian Croft as David proved a gifted young performer – just the sort of son that mums dream of.

There were fine performances too from Leila Benn Harris as Bella, trying to break from the stifling past her father Avram (Matt Zimmerman) clings to. She’s helped along by the husband-hunting widow Rachel, played with wit and charm by Jenny Logan.

The ensemble was boosted by young performers from ArtsEd who bring energy and zest to the big company numbers like "Bread and Freedom", and the spine-tingling "Children of the Wind".

And Maureen Lipman as Narrator proved the icing on the cake. Who better to bring the necessary wry humour and warmth to Rags?

Centrepoint will rightly benefit from this one-off staging, but it would be satisfying to see such a promising production given a longer lease of life.