Shlemiel the First resurfaces and a new Porgy and Bess

Irene Backalenick“Shlemiel the First,” the joyous 1994 Klezmer musical, reappeared this past month on the New York stage for, alas, too brief a visit. This revival was the joint production of the National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene and the Theatre for a New Audience, staged at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. And this time, unusual for the Folksbiene, the show is in English, not Yiddish, calling for no subtitles.

The Robert Brustein adaptation of the Isaac Bashevis Singer story is a wonderful little fairy tale, a story of what once was – or perhaps never was – of life in the 19th century eastern European shtetls. It is a heritage many of us look back upon with nostalgia, longing, confusion, re-invention.

In any event, every one – Jew and non-Jew – walks out of the theater smiling broadly, grateful for that rare feel-good experience. But there is a deeper message here – namely, that one has to step away occasionally to appreciate what one has. It is, in fact, a reaffirmation of life. “L’chaim, to life, l’chaim.”

The story? It is the town of Chelm, where everything is upsidedown and forward/backward. A perfect fit for Shlemiel, the local beadle and a veritable shlemiel (Yiddish for “fool” or “loser”). “He’s a shlemiel, but he’s my shlemiel,” laments his wife Tryna Ritza.

Chelm is also a perfect fit for the town sages, led by Gronam Ox, who deal with sour cream shortages, burned blintzes, bossy wives. Every one is slightly mad, sane in a crazy way, wise in a stupid way.

The sages decide to send Shlemiel on a journey to spread the wisdom of Gronam Ox “around the world and elsewhere.” And, armed with his dreydl and his sweet naivete, he sets out. But along the way, Shlemiel is robbed, duped, and sent in the wrong direction (in fact, back to Chelm). On arriving, he thinks he is in a new place, a second Chelm, a parallel universe. This is not his wife, that bossy shrew, but a seductive stranger. These are not his annoying children, but adorable tots.

This little Singer tale comes to life beautifully and Klezmatically. A number of top-notch creators have worked together to achieve this magic – not only Singer himself, and that Renaissance man of the theater Robert Brustein (who conceived and adapted the piece), but a myriad of others. It is Arnold Weinstein’s lyrics, with composition and orchestration by Hankus Netsky and additional music and music direction by Zalmen Mlotek. And David Gordon, who directed and choreographed this Folksbiene production, provided editorial supervision as well.

The set itself (courtesy of Robert Israel) is deceptively simple. No rotating stages here. Scenes are restaged by dragging a sheet, loaded with props, to and from the stage. The “bed” in opening and closing scenes is a perpendicular panel, on which the loving couple lies (or, rather, stands). This up-and-down bed sets the mood for all to come – for a surreal, comic, fairytale world. It’s all on a highly professional level – from the Klezmer band’s vibrant music, to Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, to Catherine Zuber’s inflated costumes that turn actors into buxom wives.

As to the cast, Michael Iannucci (Iannucci? Is that a Jewish name?) captures the Shlemiel role perfectly, never going over the top. In his understated way, he not only conquers the role, but his audience as well. He is sweet, lovable, and irresistible. Amy Warren (Warren? A Jewish name?) as his long-suffering mate, gives a perfectly-nuanced performance underscored by her fine singing voice and strong stage presence. And Jeff Brooks (Brooks? A Jewish name?) as Gronam Ox is a delight. Others in the cast do not, alas, have comparable singing voices and tend to scream through their songs, and the Klezmer music tends to repetitive themes. But these are minor quibbles, forgotten when the sages go through their dance routines with a real-life dummy or turn into the well-padded housewives. It is mostly great fun.

And it is a memorable return to the past – or the past we choose to remember. When will we have another return of this Shlemiel? Just as “A Christmas Carol” and “Nutcracker” show up annually, why can’t Shlemiel return every Chanukah?

A new Porgy and Bess

Can you imagine the American musical theater existing without the Gershwins – or Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein? Or, for that matter, the numerous other songwriters and lyricists – immigrant Jews and their descendants who hailed from Eastern Europe? Their contributions have been incalculable. Broadway, Hollywood, and the musical comedy world would indeed have been barren without their existence.

But back to the Gershwins – and George Gershwin and Porgy and Bess in particular. What George Gershwin conceived to be an American folk opera became his Porgy and Bess, written in the 1930s and opening on Broadway in 1935. It would go on to become a classic, deeply cherished worldwide and occupying a niche of its own, somewhere between opera and Broadway show. As for Gershwin himself, it was, in many ways, the height of his career – in fact his swan song – since he died two years later, his life cut short by a brain tumor while in his 30s. But other contributions as well must be credited for the success of “Porgy”: his brother Ira’s lyrics, as well as the original story and adaptation by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward.

And now a new version of the classic appears on the Broadway stage, a “Porgy” for the modern age, as its ads proclaim. With good reason, the show has been retitled The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, for new professionals have been brought in to achieve drastic changes. The show has been stripped down, made more gritty, more real, with less emphasis on the glorious Gershwin tunes. What emerges is a world of real people (that of South Carolina’s coastal blacks), and a strong sense of place. Despite racism (strongly evident in this production), poverty, and threatened violence, a strong community emerges.

This “Porgy” is, in its own right, sensational. The entire cast is in sync, working beautifully in ensemble. Choreographer Ronald K. Brown has created marvelous routines which evoke an African background. And certainly topping the cast is Audra McDonald as Bess. McDonald gives a performance, from the moment she comes on stage, of subtlety and individuality. Her struggle between good and evil, between determination and temptation is written in every movement. She fights her demons each moment, and shares them with the audience. Other characters are less delineated, as the story goes, but give strong performances all the same. Topping the list is Norm Lewis as Porgy. This time around, he is not legless, but crippled – enough to make him a target of mockery and sympathy. He is a good man, the first in Bess’s life, and the chemistry between them (the characters and the actors) is vibrant.

David Alan Grier is a sinuous, slinking Sporting Life, the very essence of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Others give equally fine support – Phillip Boykin as the violent Crown, NaTasha Yvette Williams as the nurturing Mariah, as well as Bryonha Marie Parham, Nikki Renee Daniels, and Christopher Innvar. Innvar, incidentally, who plays the bullying white police officer, is one of only two white players in this mostly-black cast. There is no question that the show would be cast in this way, whatever might be said for cross-racial casting in other plays. Such casting simply adds to the authenticity of the show.

A minor criticism: one wonders why there are no children in this community, except for one infant (so necessary to the story). Certainly these several couples would have had children. But why spend time quibbling over this one lapse from reality?

In all, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is a marvelous addition to the New York season. This differently-conceived production deepens the understanding, the value, and the glory of Porgy and Bess. Hopefully it will have a long run on Broadway.

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