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The Rare Riches Of 'Rags'

Marty Sohl

Turn-of-the-Century Big Band: Elizabeth Traub and (from left) Franco Traub, Andrew Ragone and Manny Saiz perform in "Rags."

A forgotten musical is given new life by San Jose's AMT

By Philip Collins

America has long been idealized as the land of dreams by people in other countries. Many still cling to this notion, but clearly immigration isn't what it used to be. In the 1960s hit musical Fiddler on the Roof, the opportunity of moving to America provided a hopeful--if not happy--ending for Tevye and his clan. Twenty years after writing Fiddler, author Joseph Stein again took up the issue of emigration with Rags, this time focusing on Jewish émigrés after their arrival in New York around the turn of the century.

This weekend, American Musical Theatre of San Jose offers a concert version of this rarely encountered work by Stein, lyricist Stephen Schwartz (Pocahontas) and composer Charles Strouse. William Liberatore, resident musical director for American Musical Theatre, estimates that few, if any, audience members are likely to be familiar with Rags' rich trove of songs. He believes, however, that few will leave not wanting to hear these tunes again.

"The score is so strong that it presents an entire evening's worth of entertainment," Liberatore says. "The music itself is an event." Rags marks American Musical Theatre's second production of a musical in concert form--without staging and sets. Liberatore explains that this midsized form of presentation was developed to amend the company's fully staged runs with works that are rarely performed or that have scores of exceptional value. Rags qualifies on both counts.

"The score is very exciting," says Liberatore. "It's not just a collection of show tunes; it has incredible variety. Strouse's score brings together all these different musical influences that were pouring into New York at the time. There's Irish ballads, jazz, Italian song, klezmer and more; every song takes you to a different time and place."

Headlining the 33-member cast are Judy McLane as the heroine, Rebecca, and Gary Lynch as Saul, the union organizer who enlightens her to the realities of the sweatshops. McLane brings an impressive list of Broadway credits (including Kiss of the Spider Woman), along with acclaim for her vocal powers. Lynch is taking off a few days from his work in Les Misérables on Broadway to participate.

A full-staged production of Rags could be in store for American Musical Theatre in the coming seasons, a revival that is, in Liberatore's opinion, long overdue. The work fell into obscurity following a less-than-glowing premiere, and despite comprehensive tightening and editing by Stein, Schwartz and Strouse, it still remains shelved.

Liberatore is confident that local audiences will embrace this overlooked musical gem. "Once people hear how great the music is, they will want to experience the work in its entirety," he says. "Judy McLane's performance of 'Children of the Wind' will knock their socks off."

Rags plays Friday (April 19) at 8:30pm and Saturday (April 20) at 2 and 8:30pm at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $28-$43. (BASS)

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From the April 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro

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