Anne Runolfsson
Anne Runolfsson
Over and above the great enjoyment provided by the various Encores! musicals in concert over the past several years, the series is laudable for having engendered a sustained interest in the form. Encores! was certainly not the first such series in history, but the high level of critical and audience acclaim earned by its shows has acted as a catalyst for similar efforts. In fact, it's happily becoming more and more difficult to name a lesser known and/or less than successful musical that has not recently had a concert presentation in New York City, whether as one of the York Theater's "Musicals in Mufti," one of the "Musicals Tonight!" at the 14th Street Y, or as part of some other, comparable endeavor.

Next up is Rags, which will receive two concert performances courtesy of The Storefront theater company on March 15 and 16 at 8pm at the Metro Baptist Church, 410 West 40th Street. With music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, and a book Joseph Stein, Rags starred opera singer Theresa Stratas and Judy Kuhn in its original Broadway production in 1986 but lasted only four performances after having played several weeks of previews, this following an out-of-town tryout during which Stratas was often unable to perform. The Storefront production will feature Anne Runolfsson and Leslie Kritzer in the leading roles of Rebecca and Bella. The 25-member cast also includes Peter Cormican as Big Tim Sullivan, Eric Forand as Saul, Marina MacNeal as Rachel, Don Juhlin as Avram, Alex Odya-Weis as David, and David Gurland as Ben.

Why Rags? "We'd always been fans of the show in all of its versions," says Phil Geoffrey Bond, founding artistic director The Storefront. "We wanted to do a concert production of a show that was sort of contemporary sounding and Rags seemed like a great choice, but the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization [which licenses the property] turned us down; they said 'a concert version of that show doesn't exist.' We didn't understand what they meant. They did offer us the rights to do a full production but we didn't have the financial resources for that. Fortunately, Stephen Schwartz has been a friend of the company ever since we did a revue of his music last year, so he helped make it happen."

Having secured permission to perform Rags, The Storefront gang was then faced with a major challenge. "The thing is that, as I said, there are multiple versions of the show," Bond explains. "It's been rewritten several times since the first production. I'm not sure exactly how many versions there are, but I've personally read four of them. The one we're doing is the most recent; it was first done in 2000 at the Walnut Street in Philadelphia and it's much different from the Paper Mill Playhouse production three years ago. Part of the problem is that the score doesn't reflect the changes that have been made in the lyrics and the script, so our brilliant musical director Sean Michael Flowers and I went down to the Rodgers and Hammerstein vaults on 28th street and dug out Michael Starobin's original orchestrations. Some of the stuff that has been added was in the show to begin with but was cut when they were out of town in 1986. I think we pieced together about six different versions of the score to come up with what we now have. On top of that, Sean had to adapt the orchestrations for a 10-piece band."

The Storefront, founded in November 1999, has presented musicals evenings showcasing the work of John Bucchino and Brett Kristofferson as well as the aforementioned Stephen Schwartz. The company also produced Gashole: The Wit and Wisdom of the '70s, a critically acclaimed cabaret show now in its fifth month at Don't Tell Mama. But, says Bond, "Rags is certainly the most ambitious thing that we've ever done. The show is set in 1910 and it's about Russian Jewish immigrants struggling to survive in America after escaping war-torn Russia, but there are obvious parallels to today. I think that's part of the reason why it has a cult following: The themes are still so pertinent."

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[Tickets to Rags may be purchased by logging onto www.smarttix.com or by phoning 212-206-1515. All tickets are priced at $30.]