“Rags” yields riches at the Plaza Theatre in Manalapan.
On the whole, the musical about Jewish immigrants in 1914 — from Old World customs and assimilation to sweatshop unions and political enfranchisement — leaves you with a satisfied feeling, even if you are constantly wondering if the show will make it intact through the two hours and 15-minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
That is because the 15 cast members (with three musicians off-stage) have wildly diverse talents and stage experience. Some of them could seriously sweeten their vocals, particularly at the top of their range. And the whirling of large set pieces and the comings and goings of teeming masses around the cramped theater is so overly kinetic it looks like an air traffic controller might be needed.
But when they get it right, they really nail it. For example, when Rebecca Hershkowitz (Melissa Boher Jacobson) arrives at Ellis Island with her son David (Eli Jacobson) and faces immediate denial of entry into the country, the tension and desperation is so real you hold your breath.
Nominated for five Tony Awards after a notoriously short run on Broadway in 1986 — we’re talking four performances and 18 previews — the show has gone through several revisions. The version here has streamlined the shiploads of subplots from the original book by Joseph Stein (“Fiddler on the Roof”), but kept the songs by Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked”) and Charles Strouse (“Annie”).
Now, the focus of the story is Rebecca and her pockmarked path through culture/tradition versus modernity/women’s rights. While she searches for her missing husband, Nathan (Randy Charleville), she is taken in by Avram Cohen (Larry Kent Bramble), who is overly protective of his daughter Bella (Sheira Feuerstein). After getting a job, Rebecca locks horns with socialist activist Saul (James Cichewicz). Their burgeoning romance hits the brakes when Nathan, now an up-and-comer with nefarious politico Big Tim Sullivan, returns on the scene.
If you don’t need to hit the refresh button on your knowledge of American history, you can probably guess what Tammany Hall mess is coming, with graft, corruption and police brutality. But don’t think it’s all strife. Plenty of warm humor is embedded in the show, from a sojourn into turn-of-the-century Yiddish theater (a Mel Brooksian version of “Hamlet”) to a nudge-wink-wink flirtation between Avram and a savvy street vendor, Rachel (Gail Byer).
Those moments pave the show with gold.
“Rags” is running through March 16 at the Plaza Theatre, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., in Manalapan. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, with 2 p.m. matinees Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets cost $45. Call 561-588-1820 or go to PlazaTheatre.net.