Rags, Bridewell Theatre, London

Papa don't preach
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The Independent Culture

Amazing what you can do to a problem by taking money away from it. In 1986 Rags flopped like a wet fish on Broadway, notable only for its $5m loss and for one critic's description of the ingenue – "a girl who rebels against parental oppression and is punished by being burnt alive and having to sing the title song of the show.''

That song is still pretty excruciating: "I want to scream, 'I'm the same as you!'/ But it isn't true – / I'm just one more Jew/ In her RAGS!'' In Matthew Smith's brisk, low-key – indeed, subfuse – production, however, such strident moments pass harmlessly enough. Instead of a re-created Lower East Side at the turn of the last century, full of people bustling and shrieking, there are only two pushcarts in front of a brick wall.

This modest treatment reveals the show's modest virtues. In New York Charles Strouse's score was orchestrated and sung as if bent on world domination. Made to shush and behave itself, it's an appealing blend of the genre named in the show's title with traditional Jewish sacred and popular music. Along with echoes of the Kurt Weill of Street Scene, one can hear some traditional gentile music – in a nice little joke/homage, the heroine, Rebecca, bids farewell to the neighbourhood ("Cabbage soup I will never eat again'') to the tune of the verse of "I'll See You Again''. In "Greenhorns,'' a stately chirpy rag accompanies immigration officials processing the new arrivals, yanking open their mouths as if examining horses. "Blame It On The Summer Night'', despite Stephen Schwartz's occasionally clumsy lyrics, is a lovely ballad of yearning, restless sensuality.

Rebecca and her doomed friend, Bella, are not simply portrayed but embodied in the warm, honest performances of Sally Ann Triplett and Alicia Davies, respectively. Gareth Williams provides edge as a variety of well-differentiated villains. An elderly couple are meant to be heart-warming, but Sue Kelvin is grating, John Levitt apathetic.

The show's main trouble remains – its dry, preachy tone. You would never know from Joseph Stein's book that Jews have a reputation for being funny – one further undermined by a would-be comic but actually embarrassing Yiddish Hamlet. Rebecca and Bella are nearly identical (sweet but plucky), and the other characters might as well wear placards: Firebrand, Good Boy, Crook. The songs repeat what we've heard in the dialogue instead of making emotional progress, and repeat one another as well.

Indeed, after a while, the show's insistent drabness becomes absurdly self-righteous. Why is it so worked up about Jewish sweatshop labour 100 years ago when Asians and Mexicans are suffering right now? Why is a character who changes his name from Hershkovitz to Harris despised as a traitor to his race? The latter would be a bizarre stand for anyone in Strouse, Schwartz, and Stein's line of work, even if the greatest American songwriter hadn't started life as Israel Baline.

To 2 December, 020-7936 3456

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