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‘Rags’ at Town Hall offers moving musical tale

When the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire broke out in 1911 - killing 146 workers, mostly young immigrant girls, largely because the management locked them into the workrooms - it also ignited the garment workers' union movement.

A revival of the Tony-nominated musical "Rags" at Flushing Town Hall with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Joseph Stein, uses this horror as a pivotal event in the life of Rebecca Herkovitz, a young immigrant woman, and her son David.

The play begins with a somewhat overlong series of film clips that everyone's seen before: the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan skyline at the turn of the 20th century, masses of weary immigrants - a great deal of them Jews fleeing the oppression and pogroms of czarist Russia.

Rebecca, played by the excellent Kate Andres, arrives with her son only to discover that her husband Nathan (Ames Adamson) isn't there to greet her. She and David are saved from being deported at the last minute by the quick thinking of the teenaged Bella (Rachel Eve Moses), who impresses her father Avram (Gary Tifeld) into posing as Rebecca's American uncle, even though the two of them have just gotten off the boat themselves.

They all bivouac in the two-room tenement of Avram's haughty brother, then start pounding the pavement. Rebecca, who learns that her husband is in Buffalo, goes to work in a sweatshop, while Avram, who was a scholar in the old country, takes up a pushcart and enlists David as his assistant.

Meanwhile, Bella has fallen in love with Ben, another greenhorn, who works for a while in a cigar factory and pads his resume to impress the young girl, whose loving but stubbornly old-school father doesn't even want her to leave the house.

The play is touching and amusing as it spotlights the ambitions of the immigrants, including David. Jared Verra is wonderful as this energetic little boy who quickly learns how to be an entrepreneur; one is tempted to say hustler, but he's too young for that. The way he pitches Ben's prohibitively expensive ($10) gramophones (Thomas Edison's medicine, as one song describes it) is delicious, and he uses his lovely, clear singing voice to do it.

As the new arrivals toil to put food on the table, events swirl around them - the corruption of Tammany Hall, the fledgling labor movement, and, tied into both events, the Triangle inferno.

The play is really a chart of how Rebecca, a good, resourceful woman, learns to take control of her destiny. When she stands up to Bronstein, the vicious owner of the shop where she works, and then her husband, who's on the fast track to the nastier sort of assimilation, we want to cheer. Andres makes one feel fully Rebecca's strength and dignity, and her fierce love for her son, as well as her ambivalence. The revival also respects her character by not having her end up with Saul, which happened in the original. For a woman like Rebecca it's daring enough to decide not to live with her husband, to say nothing of keeping company with a man who isn't. Andres' beautiful, round soprano voice is icing on the cake.

Tifeld is terrific as the devout Avram; one of the things he disapproves of about Ben is that he doesn't wear a hat. He's also very funny. When Rebecca's husband tells him that he carries a walking stick because he likes it, Avram replies, "I like chicken but I don't carry one around."

Sheryl Kane is warm, snippy and amusing as the widow Rachel, who owns a pushcart next to Avram's and eventually becomes his wife, though their duet "Three Sunny Rooms" makes you wonder if he's marrying her for love or for her apartment (given that Avram is living in two lightless rooms with five other people, that has to be a consideration).

Niemi plays Saul with a zeal that Rebecca, a woman who would have never thought of leaving her husband, finds compelling. Moses' Bella is remarkable. Her natural ebullience and optimism is slowly eroded by being forced to do piecemeal work with her pleasant but narrow-minded aunt (Wendy Porter) in that airless tenement - the title song is her lament to her father - and then revived, at least for a while, when she finds outside work.

Adamson's Nathan is appalling, which is a compliment to the actor. Having arrived in the United States a few years before his wife and son, he's changed his name to Harris ("Herkovitz is too ... you know," he explains), has become a tool of Tammany Hall, and worst of all, is happy to disdain the people he came from, including his wife (at one point he refers to Bella as a "Jew girl"). One figures he'll become rich and powerful in the Fourth Ward where he becomes boss, then probably endure a great fall, like Boss Tweed himself, and it will serve him right.

Rick Brody, who has several roles, is also noteworthy, particularly in his turn as a Yiddish Hamlet (imagine this).

"Rags" is a gratifyingly old-fashioned kind of show. Stein and Strouse's musical numbers, choreographed by director Kevin Wallace, move the action along nicely and express the character's unspoken emotions, especially Rebecca's attraction to the young union organizer Saul (Paul D. Niemi) and her budding political and social consciousness.

The one caveat is that Flushing Town Hall isn't really equipped to accommodate what is essentially a Broadway show. Indeed, the stage is too small for all the bustling action, which spills out into a cleared space where patrons would usually sit. The actors sing marvelously but the acoustics in the Civil War era building are such, alas, that sometimes the words don't reach the balcony, or are drowned out by the orchestra, though a Kaddish sung after the catastrophe still has the power to tear your heart out. Sherry Kfare's costumes, shawls and homespun dresses for the poor immigrants, and silks, satins and sequins for the "swells," are just right. Michael Abrams' lighting swings from dramatic to tender and Tony Grover's sets, with their Hebrew lettering in storefront windows, simple furnishings, and dark backdrops evoke the Lower East Side in the early years of the last century.

"Rags" is a splendid work - you shouldn't miss it. It continues at Flushing Town Hall, 137-35 Northern Blvd., through June 17. For tickets or more information, call 463-7700.

Reach Qguide writer Arlene McKanic by e-mail at timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 139.

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