“With its creative and production heft, this will undoubtably be around a long time”
Born in ancient Egypt and delivered via an unconventional route, this new work from the creators of Wicked (Dreamwork Theatricals) arrives kicking and ululating in the mighty palace of London’s Dominion Theatre. Having first been an animated feature film, this is the story of Moses told with a lot less religion and a lot more bromance, tracking the relationship between young Ramses and his foundling sibling as they grow close, then apart, then further apart.
A thrillingly executed chariot race kicks off an evening of peerless creative arts, from choreography to video projections, from wardrobe to set design. Then, as Ramses (Liam Tamne) steps up to fill the Pharaonic boots of his father Seti (Joe Dixon), Moses heads the other way down the pecking order, by falling for an enslaved dancer, Tzipporah (Christine Allado). Exile ensues as he pursues her into the embrace of the desert-based Midianites, a blissful commune lead by the genial Jethro (Gary Wilmot) who teach him how to dance in 5/4 time. After meeting up with his previously lost family, in particular sister Miriam (Alexia Khadime), Moses realises his identity and takes up the cause of those Hebrew slaves still slogging themselves to death on Ramses’ pyramids.
Enslaved to an unwieldy source, the script by Philip LaZebnik suffers under the strain, with wars and plagues, exile and deliverance having to be explained through the eyes of two brothers in the few gaps between 25 musical numbers. With so much work to do in a small space of time, some lines edge beyond parody. “Moses!! I haven’t seen you in a long time” says Rameses as if spotting a mate in McDonald’s when Moses returns from exile to let his people go. “How did you let the people go?” complains High Priest Hotep (Adam Pearce) as if the multitude escaping was equivalent to losing your Oyster card. However, it does the job of keeping the action and effects speeding along, especially in the second half with plagues being visited with exhilarating brevity. Hotep is no sooner popping open his vestal top to reveal boils than meteors are descending on the backdrop. But this is all, as intended, creating a thundering, crowd-pleasing display, that bears little analysis (should we really applaud a plague?) but gives excellent opportunity for some impressive visuals. The design team in particular (Kevin Depinet’s set, Mike Billings’ lighting, Jon Driscoll’s projections and Chris Fisher’s illusions) create spectacular landscapes, pyramid interiors and Red Sea partings.
Great effort too has gone into Stephen Schwarz’ reworking of his own score. Best known for Wicked and Godspell, here his music and lyrics wrestle absorbingly with the constraints of Egyptian-sounding cadences (courtesy of Hollywood’s biblical blockbusters) and lilting Yiddish melodies, while blending in some old school rock opera and, inevitably, the saccharine sound of Disney Musicals. The cast is universally highly competent as you might expect, the dancers all limb-perfect in service of Sean Cheesman’s superb choreography. With the two leads perhaps lacking enough contrast, only Alexia Khadime truly soars vocally, but Christine Allado and Gary Wilmot join her in managing to project a third dimension to their originally two-dimensional characters. With its creative and production heft, this will undoubtably be around a long time, but doesn’t have the heart of a Lion King.
“Maitland’s vocal control in particular is quite staggering, bringing a coiled strength to the small auditorium.”
Often described as the sequel to ‘Fiddler On the Roof’, ‘Rags’, originally written by Joseph Stein (who did also write ‘Fiddler’) enjoyed only four days on Broadway in its 1987 debut. Regardless, it was nominated for five Tony awards that year. But, more baffling still, it has never been brought back to the stage, that is, until now.
Revised by David Thompson and directed by Bronagh Lagan, ‘Rags’ tells the story of Jewish immigrants making their way to America at the turn of the twentieth century. Among the boatloads of hopefuls is Rebecca (Carolyn Maitland), with her son David (as played by Jude Muir for this performance), who, without any family or a nickel to her name, is determined to succeed in this new promised land.
As with most sequels, ‘Rags’ has loosely the same narrative arc as its predecessor: A community of traditional Jews fights off the outside world on multiple fronts, be it via assimilation, persecution or modernisation. Certain familiar characters re-appear as well. Ben (Oisin Nolan-Power) for example, a nice but nerdy tailor seeks the affections of Bella (Martha Kirby) whose father, Avram (Dave Willetts) disapproves of the union. I mean, why not just call them Motel and Tzeitel and have done with it.
But ‘Rags’ does depart from ‘Fiddler’ in its sheer volume of historical content, including everything from the 1909 Shirtwaist strikes and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to the emergence of feminism, the rising popularity of Yiddish theatre and song writing, and culture clashes, not only between different ethnicities and religions, but also first and second-wave immigrants. In order to include all of this, every character symbolises a school of thought, be it capitalism or communism, traditionalism or modernisation. And this leaves little room for any of the characters to have any, well, character. The older generation – aunt, uncle and father – bring a little Yiddish flavour from the old country, but aside from that everyone is a bit bland.
The soundtrack (Charles Strouse/Stephen Schwartz) flits between a klezmer-ragtime fusion, and modern musical numbers. The former is accompanied by a swaggering Klezmer band wondering the stage, playing various bit-parts as they go. The small ensemble brings a tonne of humour and spirit to the production. Clarinettist Natasha Karp is a particular joy to watch, her constant facial expressions a kind of running commentary on the story’s goings-on.
The more modern numbers, however, are generally forgettable and feel mismatched with the themes of the plot.
The set (Gregor Donnelly), consisting of a wall of suitcases, and sparse furniture, provides an atmosphere of transition; of both hope and hardship. Whilst Rebecca, Bella and David have just arrived, the small apartment has been the home of multiple immigrant families before this one, and will no doubt go on to house many more after, and the set succeeds in keeping this feeling of flux throughout.
The cast themselves are gloriously talented, doing their best to inject colour and excitement to a story that drags on at least a half hour too long. Maitland’s vocal control in particular is quite staggering, bringing a coiled strength to the small auditorium.
But whilst ‘Rags’ was not intended as a direct sequel for ‘Fiddler’, it’s hard not to consider it as such and, as is often the case with sequels, it doesn’t stand up to comparison. Yes, there are a couple of catchy numbers, a couple of funny scenes, and a couple of moments of heartfelt reflection. But not enough on any count, and unfortunately this revival is less a story of rags to riches, and more rags to run-of-the-mill.