When Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can't Go Home Again, he proved himself the consummate goy, blind to the potent staying power of schmaltz. If he had a ticket to the Jewish Community Center's latest production of Rags, he could have journeyed back to that happy May of 1993, when tearful audiences wrung their soggy tissues and pointed out to their neighbors how well their talented relatives emoted as greasepaint immigrants.
Since its original JCC production, this emotionally lavish musical of the Lower East Side Jewish immigrant experience circa 1910 has acquired a new cousin in Ragtime and remains the proud boychick to Fiddler on the Roof. With its rampant emotionalism and manipulation of tear ducts, Rags is as demanding of viewers' hearts and souls as a showbiz cantor played by Al Jolson. In fact, it does star a real live cantor in the person of Kathryn Wolfe Sebo, who--in any crisis, from riot to lost husband--overwhelms all tumult and enslaves the audience with her shining fortitude. Her gorgeous pipes can be counted on to make this Broadway pastrami sound like Puccini.
This is a musical bursting at the seams; you can't even go to the john without fear of bumping into one of the immigrant waifs, belligerent cops, or crooked Irish politicians running up and down the aisles. Director Fred Sternfeld does his darnedest to cram a wide-screen passion play onto a puppet-show stage.
Beginning where Fiddler on the Roof left off, the immigrants have arrived crammed in a boat, colorfully indomitable and charmingly hopeful.
Stealing focus from the Statue of Liberty is Rebecca, played with the intensity of a Yiddish-inflected Maria Callas by Sebo. She might have danced in the same circles as Fiddler's Tevye. Determined and implacable, searching for her lost husband, she sings of her traumatic past ("Children of the Wind") to let everyone on the boat and in the audience know that she is supposed to be the titanic life force of the evening.
The piece covers the travails of three couples, the birth of unionism, the origins of the Tammany Hall political machine, the emergence of feminism, and the war between Marxism and capitalism. To lead the audience through this journey and prevent the show from becoming just another melting pot, book writer Joseph Stein needed to create a larger-than-life archetype, a Mama Rose/Mother Courage/Annie Oakley rolled into one. Yet his Rebecca, as conceived on paper, only manages to be a carved-in-granite figurehead of nobility.
Like Ragtime, this musical manages to be a beautiful artifact without a heart. For this reason, in spite of its numerous charms, it never has entered the pantheon. Both musicals have scores compelling enough to make any wedding or bar mitzvah ring with Old World emotions. Charles Strouse (Bye, Bye, Birdie) and Stephen Schwartz (Godspell) have vividly contrasted the emerging world of New York immigrants with the simultaneous birth of American popular music, with strains of composers as diverse as Joplin, Sousa, Gershwin, and Kurt Weill.
Fred Sternfeld is the Alan Dershowitz of directors. He's a keen negotiator, a sly fox with a strong eye for offbeat casting. He excels at the comic and grotesque, and he's not afraid to go out on a limb. Unearthing fawn-like new talent, he goes a long way to transform cardboard into idiomatic flesh.
Scott Plate, as Sabo's radical Jewish suitor, looks as if he should be shilling for the Irish Derby. He excels at neurotic burnouts. Here he brings an unexpected Norman Bates-like nervousness, creating a palpable, uneasy danger every time he puts his arms around the heroine or her young son.
Greg Violand is a Cleveland landmark who improves with each crow's foot. Here he renders double duty, first as a singing, dancing Hamlet in the musical's tribute to the emerging Yiddish theater, then as the Yankee Doodle-gone-crazy husband of the heroine.
In the divine oddities department, Adina R. Bloom plays a love-starved fruit peddler with the horsy humility of Eleanor Roosevelt. As Avram Cohen, Paul Floriano--a local Sea World heartthrob (no, he's not a seal)--pulls a Stanislavsky, disappearing behind a beard so only his most intimate relatives or bill collectors would recognize him. Patrick J. Carroll, a veteran from the 1993 production, pulls off a delicious brand of political chicanery.
As the doomed friend of the heroine, newcomer Kathryn Garson rises like Venus on the half shell to enchant theatergoers as an almost translucent creature of delicacy and refinement. To wrap up a long line of sincere but overextended compliments, Keith Gerchak--another blessed newcomer--as the show's immigrant Artful Dodger is what the French would refer to as a coquin adorable (charming rogue).
The turntables spin on schedule, the director's hora dances seem remotely Jewish, Keith Nagy's sets and Joyce Brabner's costumes blend Shubert Alley and Delancey Street, all making for a pleasing, musicalized go-around as the History Channel meets Evening at the Pops. Since about as many people labored to bring this ambitious project to fruition as Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, chances are you'd be offending some loved one or relative if you missed it. So you may as well just go and enjoy.
Rags, through May 30 at the Jewish Community Center's Halle Theatre, 3505 Mayfield Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-382-4000.