September 2018: The start of a vigorous new season

Fiddler on the Roof at the Museum of Jewish Heritage

“A little bit of this, a little bit of that” – go the lines to “Anatevka,”  one of many memorable songs in Fiddler on the Roof.  By now a treasured American classic (book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick),  theatregoers look back with fondness on numerous productions – from the 1964 premiere on Broadway starring Zero Mostel, to subsequent revivals starring Topol, Alfred Molina, Danny Burstein, and numerous others.

What makes the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s new revival so thrilling, now playing a the Museum of Jewish Heritage, is that it reintroduces this beloved musical not as a Broadway smash hit, but rather as a folk opera, performed in Yiddish.

Fiddler on the Roof – photo Victor Nechay

That’s because designer Beowolf Boritt faithfully follows the description of the lines quoted above, offering an empty stage with nothing but a few tables and chairs (i. e. “a little bit of this/that.”).  This minimalist choice allows the “star” of this production – namely the Yiddish language, in which the play is performed – to transport us back over a hundred years to Anatevka, a fictitious shtetl in the Ukraine where that ghetto dialect was spoken by Tevye, his families and neighbors.  Words like “shiddoch”, “yenta,” “kinder” “sei gesund” “gluck, “bubbe-meise”, “shayne”, “l’chaim”, “mensch”,  “shmata,” etc. – Yiddish terms incorporated into our current colloquial speech – ring out like old friends, and pretty soon we stop following the super-titles (offered in English and Russian), and get swept up in the familiar story of Tevye and his five daughters that by now we know so well.

With Jerome Robbins as the original choreographer, Staś Kmieć has big shoes to fill – but he does so with inventiveness and ingenuity (especially the famous Grandma Tzeitel nightmare sequence).

The simplicity and clarity of the production and the richness of the Yiddish language combine to make this Fiddler an unforgettable one.   Veteran stage actor Joel Grey directs a passionate troupe of over two dozen actors, featuring Steven Skybell as a wry, lovable Tevye. The milkman’s conversations with God are always my favorite part of the production, and Skybell relishes these exchanges (who wouldn’t?!).    Tevye’s losing battles – not only with God but also with eroding traditions, changing times, the threatening pogrom, and the abrupt uprooting from Anatevka – are all the more poignant, given Skybell’s ironic acceptance.

 

Smokey Joe’s Café at Stage 42, West 42nd Street

Rarely have I ever seen a show generating as much joy as Smokey Joe’s Café, the musical revue now being given a sensational revival at Stage 42.  A dazzling ensemble of nine singer/dancers (five men, four women) deliver a head-spinning ninety minutes of forty musical numbers by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the team that infused the 50s and 60s with songs written for Elvis Presley, The Drifters and others.  In all, this talented duo wrote over 70 chart hits and were inducted into both the Songwriters and the Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe

What makes Smokey Joe’s Café so fabulous is the sum of all its moving, energizing parts.  The numbers soar by non-stop, one after the other, with no interruption except for the wild applause after favorites like “Kansas City,” “Hound Dog,” “Charlie Brown,” “There Goes My Baby,” and “Yakety Yak” (to name a few).  The exuberant cast is colorfully costumed by Alejo Vietti on Beowulf Boritt’s snazzy neon-lit set.  A marvelous band including two pianos, a bass, horns, and guitar occupy both the balcony and a corner of the stage –  on a platform that occasionally moves to the center, adding even more excitement to the play’s forward motion.

The ensemble shines.  Four actor-singers make a smashing doo-wop group in ”Searchin’,” “Poison Ivy,” “Lovin’ You,” and other numbers. The four actress-singers deliver show-stoppers as well, including “ I’m a Woman.” Each cast member gets his or her moment, notably Emma Degerstedt in “Teach Me How to Shimmy” wearing a fabulous pink dress, and Jelani Remy in every number where he displays his marvelous dancing talent.   Alysha Umphress sings her heart out in the soulful “Pearl’s A Singer,” and so on.  The others shine equally –  Dwayne Cooper (a smashing bass), John Edwards (a multi-talented singer-dancer), Dionne Figgins (charismatic in every number), Nicole Ortiz (delivering a rousing “Saved” in the finale), Max Sangerman (a talented singer-musician), and Kyle Taylor Parker (belting out a terrific “Love Potion #9).    Members of the marvelous band deserve equal praise.  Joshua Bergasse (of On The Town fame) directs with meticulous care, skill and precision.

Whatever you call it – a “revue” or a “juke box musical” – it’s the happiest 90 minutes I’ve spent in a New York theatre in ages.

 

Separate and Equal at 59e59 Theaters

Sports as a metaphor is prevalent on the stage these days – witness The Wolves, Sarah DeLappe’s coming of age work at Lincoln Center last season, in which a team of high-school girls play out their teenage issues on the soccer field.

Separate & Equal

Now comes Separate and Equal, a powerful new play about race, developed at the University of Alabama and now in performance at 59e59 Theaters.  Writer/Director Seth Panitch has unearthed another painful chapter pertaining to race in the history of the American South.  Based on a true story, we watch two “teams” – three black and three white teens – as they sneak onto a Birmingham, Alabama court in 1951 and persist in playing with each other, even though integrated games were not allowed by law.

The power of this beautifully directed, ninety-minute piece lies not only in the story, but also the manner in which it’s told and staged.   Panitch has his players in constant motion (choreographed by Lawrence M. Jackson), as they make all the moves but mime the ball.  Their game is interspersed with interruptions from the local police, warning them not to play.  “What are these n——s doing on my court?”” cries the police captain.  There are also flashbacks to domestic scenes, where important background information is offered on their interconnected lives.

The players crouch onstage while these scenes play out, producing an almost surreal effect – on a bare floor representing the court, flanked by two screens projecting images of baskets.  The audience in the tiny theater space surrounds the court on all sides, mesmerized by the stagecraft.

As upsetting as it is to hear the “n—–“ word pronounced on stage, it’s an important reminder of our painful past, as we continue to witness racial tensions around our country.  “There are rules – If everyone follows them, we’ll be f—ing fine,” says one boy.    But that’s not the way history goes.

As they continue to play, the character of each of the six boys emerges.  The African-American boys (Adrian Baidoo, James Holloway and Edwin Brown III) and the white ones (Ross Birdsong, Steven Bono Jr., and Dylan Guy Davis) play their roles with passion, conviction, and humanity.  The more they interact, the more we see the promise of friendship.

But reality encroaches in the final moments, as the police interrupt the scene for the final, fateful time.  “There are sides,” they tell the boys.  “You better know which one you’re on.”   In the final traumatic moments (no spoiler alert), the ominous warning of one boy echoes in our ears:  “We ain’t never gonna get it right.”

 

The True at Signature Theatre Center

 In these turbulent times, with politics overwhelming our daily reality, why not in the theatre, too?  The True, a new play by Sharr White produced by The New Group, is a case of art imitating life – this time on a local level.  Erastus Corning II, mayor of Albany, is up for reelection, and Polly, his former secretary and unofficial “woman behind the mayor,” is going to make sure he wins.  Supported by her loyal husband Peter, they form a kind of political ménage a trois (Polly has long been in love with Erastus, and Peter knows and accepts it).

The True

We first meet this trio in Polly’s parlor (she’s at the sewing machine, with Peter and Erastus on either side).   The action switches back and forth from Polly’s to Erastus’s home, to other locales, as she works the political machinery.  As played by the charismatic Edie Falco (of “The Sopranos” fame), you can’t take your eyes of Polly, as she makes her moves.  She’s funny, profane, single-minded, and relentless. She’s fearless in the face of opposition – be it from a reluctant committeeman or a hostile councilman. In short, it’s the “Edie Falco show.”

Michael McKean makes a convincing mayor, while Peter Scolari, as Peter, gains our sympathy as the faithful and true husband.   Directed by Scott Elliott with a steady hand, this play doesn’t offer any dramatic upheavals (except for a deliciously sly revelation toward the end, no spoiler alert).  On the other hand, it offers some penetrating insights into the nature of relationships – marriage, work, and friendship – with the intrinsic elements of loyalty and betrayal.

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