Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘new jewish theatre’

Tuesdays With Morrie
by Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
New Jewish Theatre
October 5, 2017

Andrew Michael Neiman, James Anthony
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

 

The first production of New Jewish Theatre’s 21st season is the stage adaptation of Mitch Albom’s popular book Tuesdays With Morrie. It’s a two-man show, bringing to the stage two excellent local actors, continuing NJT’s tradition of excellent casting. I hadn’t read the book or seen the play, and I’m glad this has been my introduction to it.

The story is autobiographical, depicting the friendship between author and sportswriter Mitch Albom (Andrew Michael Neiman) and his former university professor, Morrie Schwartz (James Anthony). Mitch narrates the story, starting with how he first met and got to know Morrie at Brandeis University in the 1970s, but then lost touch after Mitch graduated and he threw himself into his career. After 16 years of no contact, Mitch finally sees Morrie on TV, being interviewed on Nightline. It’s through this program that Mitch learns of Morrie’s diagnosis with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Mitch then calls Morrie, who actually remembers him, and the phone call eventually leads to a visit, which becomes a series of visits in which Mitch gets reacquainted with Morrie as Morrie’s illness progresses. Over the course of a few months, Mitch and Morrie become close again, and Mitch learns a lot from Morrie about what really matters in life. We also see the devastating effects of Morrie’s condition, as the once energetic professor finds himself unable to perform basic everyday tasks, and Mitch has to help him more and more during his visits. It’s a vivid depiction of two men and their remarkable friendship as both of them learn to deal with issues of life, mortality, and priorities in different but highly personal ways.

It’s a moving story already, but what really makes this production is the casting. Neiman and Anthony are both excellent in their roles, with Neiman convincingly portraying Mitch’s journey from a workaholic who buries his emotions in his job to being forced to care about Morrie and his situation and reconsider his own outlook on life. Anthony, especially, is superb as Morrie, an intelligent, witty, and vital man who has to come to terms with his own physical decline and his impending death. It’s a remarkable performance, achingly realistic as Morrie’s motor functions first falter, and then gradually fail, while Morrie still maintains his passion for life and his concern for Mitch and everyone else around him. The later scenes in the play may be difficult to watch, as Morrie’s decline is more and more evident, and as Neiman and Anthony portray the increasingly close friendship between these two men as the inevitable approaches.

The production values here, as usual, are first-rate, with a detailed and imaginative set by Cristie Johnston that focuses on a large, leaning bookcase, and also effectively utilizes a turntable at a key point in the production. The sense of movement and passage of time is effectively achieved through the staging, as well. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Michael Sullivan, costume designer Michele Friedman Siler, props master Sarah Azizo, and sound designer Amanda Werre, as all the technical elements work together to help bring the audience into Mitch and Morrie’s world.

Tuesdays With Morrie is an emotional play, portraying a full range of feelings and moods from humor to drama to heartrending sadness, to ever-persistent hope, as personified by Morrie and his relationship with and influence on Mitch. It’s an expertly staged and acted production that’s likely to bring laughter as well as tears. It’s a thoroughly believable portrayal of a genuinely affectionate friendship, as well as the depiction of terminal illness and the process of grief. It’s another memorable production from New Jewish Theatre.

Andrew Michael Neiman, James Anthony
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Tuesdays With Morrie at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until October 22, 2017

Read Full Post »

4,000 Miles
by Amy Herzog
Directed by Edward Coffield
New Jewish Theatre
May 11, 2017

Chris Tipp, Amy Loui
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

4,000 Miles closes out New Jewish Theatre’s 20th season. Essentially a character study with a slight but intriguing plot, this play emphasizes relationships and lets its audience gradually learn about the characters, as those characters gradually learn to discover truths about themselves. It’s also a strong showcase for its excellent cast.

The story starts abruptly, as Leo (Chris Tipp) arrives in the middle of the night at his grandmother’s apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village after a cross-country bike trip. The grandmother, Vera (Amy Loui), is surprised but concerned because nobody had heard from Leo in a while, and she insists he stay the night. At first, Leo says he’s not going to stay long, and Vera doesn’t expect him to, but the days go by, and he doesn’t leave, and over the course of the play we learn more about these characters as they learn to depend on one another in different ways, as the story of Leo is actually here gradually unfolds. The story focuses primarily on the young Leo and the feisty, 91-year-old Vera, although other characters do figure into the story as well, including Leo’s girlfriend from back home who goes to college in New York, Bec (Rachel Fenton), with whom he has a complicated relationship.  There’s also Amanda (Grace Langford), a young woman Leo brings home one night, and whose interactions with him reveal even more about his character and his motivations. Mainly, though, this play is about Leo and Vera, and what we learn about both characters and the issues they deal with that are shown as they spend time together. Issues of challenged idealism, loneliness, loss of friends and loved ones, and the simple power of personal relationships are key elements of this play. It’s an intriguing story, but this is more about the characters than the story really, and the end is even more abrupt than the beginning.

The performances here are the true highlight of this show. Loui is obviously playing much older than her actual age here, which makes her portrayal all the more impressive in its sheer credibility. It’s easier for a younger performer playing older to exaggerate mannerisms or speech patterns, but Loui doesn’t do that here. In fact, she does an excellent job of making me believe she really is 91. She also brings a believable mix of feistiness and reflection to the role. Her Vera is immensely likable, and her interactions with Tipp are the best part of this show. Tipp, as the initially enigmatic Leo, brings sympathy and charm to his role. His sense of regret is clearly evident in his portrayal, as is his admiration and affection for Vera.  There are also strong performances from Fenton as the conflicted Bec, and Langford as Amanda, who makes the most of her short time on stage. Annie Barbour also effectively and poignantly contributes her off-stage voice as a key character who learn about primarily through stories told by the onstage characters.

The play’s setting of Vera’s older, rent-controlled Greenwich Village apartment is well-realized here in the detailed scenic design by Marissa Todd. This looks like a real place where a real person lives. Michael Sullivan’s lighting appropriately illuminates the space as well as helping to set the mood for the various moments in the story, and Zoe Sullivan’s sound design is strong as well. The performers are appropriately outfitted by costume designer Michele Friedman Siler, with various small elements in the costuming lending insight into the characters. Laura Skroska’s props also contribute well to the story. My only minor quibble is that Leo’s bicycle looks entirely too clean and shiny at the beginning of the play, when Leo is supposed to have just arrived from a trip across the country. That really is a small issue, though. Otherwise, the technical elements of this play contribute well to the telling of this story.

4,000 Miles is a story of relationship mostly, and regrets and fears, and of the lives that lie ahead for people and the lives and people they’ve left behind, and how those people and experiences can stay with a person whether they are 21 or 91 or somewhere in between. It’s a superbly acted story with a good balance of drama and humor. The ending is a bit strange, as if it stops in the middle of the story, and I’m sure that’s deliberate but I’m not entirely sure if it works. Still, this is a play about the people, and about their connections and interactions and how those relationships shape and influence them. It’s an engaging, intriguing show, and the experience here is worth the trip.

Chris Tipp, Rachel Fenton
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting 4,ooo Miles at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until May 28, 2017

Read Full Post »

Never the Sinner
by John Logan
Directed by Rick Dildine
New Jewish Theatre
March 16, 2017

Pete Winfrey, Jack Zanger
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Never the Sinner is a highly disturbing play. It’s also extremely fascinating. On stage now in a riveting production from New Jewish Theatre, John Logan’s play about the infamous crime duo of Leopold and Loeb is one of those shows that isn’t easy to forget. It will certainly get audiences talking, and thinking.

A well-known “thrill kill” murder case of the 1920s, the murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks at the hands of young, rich, and intelligent college students Nathan Leopold (Jack Zanger) and Richard Loeb (Pete Winfrey) shocked Chicago and the entire nation.  The play follows their story particularly focusing on their relationship. The director’s note calls it a “love story”, and I guess you can think of it that way, but this is one twisted sort of love story. The relationship as portrayed here appears more as a fascination, a mutual enthrallment, a mixture of admiration, self-satisfaction, and encouragement of the most dangerous impulses in service of that enthrallment. These two bask in the glow of their own perceived prowess as Nietzsche-inspired “supermen” who are aren’t bound by the rules of society. The play cuts back and forth between the trial itself and various moments in the development of Leopold and Loeb’s relationship, including the planning and carrying out of their grisly crime. Also featured in the story is the duo’s defense attorney, the world-renowned Clarence Darrow (John Flack), who looms as a non-speaking presence through most of the first act before becoming a major figure in Act Two. There’s also the determined Robert Crowe (Eric Dean White), the State’s Attorney who is prosecuting the case, who argues for the death penalty for the pair while Darrow argues against it. Also featured are Will Bonfiglio, Maggie Conroy, and John Reidy in a variety of roles, most prominently as a trio of reporters who recite headlines about the case and other events of the day, as well as interviewing the major players in the trial. The structure is mostly non-linear, but there’s a definite structure and purpose that takes shape as the play progresses.

This is a strange play to watch, because it’s about a horrific crime and two unapologetic perpetrators who alternate between glorying in their own self-importance, obsessing about their relationship, and occasionally second-guessing their own actions and even threatening to turn against one another. It’s an odd situation to be in as a member of the audience, being thoroughly disgusted with the events that take place, but oddly fascinated with these characters and their unusual relationship. It’s disturbing but also interesting, with dynamic staging and some truly impressive performances by Winfrey, Zanger, Flack, and White. Winfrey, as the outgoing, gregarious Loeb, and Zanger, as the more intense, less social Leopold, command the stage whenever they are on it, and their chemistry is strong. The spell these two hold one another under is clear and obvious in all of their scenes together, and they are compelling to watch. Flack as Darrow walks with hunch and shuffles with determination, bringing a strong presence to the part of the firebrand lawyer, his eloquent and challenging closing speech being a highlight of the play, and his sparring with the excellent White as the single-minded Crowe is  excellent, as well. Bonfiglio, Conroy, and Reidy also do well in a succession of roles, with Conroy’s turn as one of Loeb’s girlfriends and Reidy’s role as the judge in the trial among their most memorable appearances. It’s a strong cast all around, being driven by director Rick Dildine’s fast-paced direction and conveying the sharp, memorable language of Logan’s script with energy and clarity.

The action takes place on a stylized set by Peter and Margery Spack that has the audience seated on either side of the performance space and surrounded by pictures of birds on the walls. The stage is divided into three basic areas with the middle showcasing much of the action, with the courtroom on one side and an office/study area on the other side, with moveable set pieces and furniture that are arranged by the actors as needed. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler and meticulously detailed and period specific, reflecting Leopold and Loeb’s privileged backgrounds, Darrow’s careworn attire, and more. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Maureen Berry, props master Margery Spack, and sound designer Michael Perkins. The world of the play, Chicago in the 1920’s is well-realized, setting the proper background for the action.

There’s so much going on in this play, in the interplay between Leopold and Loeb, the wrangling of their lawyers, the representations of the times, and more. Playwright John Logan has made a highly personal story out of an infamous murder case, and a fascinating and occasionally frightening character study as well as a study of the era itself. It’s a challenging, intensely dramatic production and a showcase for some incredible performances. It can be intensely disturbing, but also intensely thought-provoking. It’s a strange play to categorize–a crime/thriller/courtroom/psychological/love story, and it’s sure to leave its audience thinking.

John Flack, Pete Winfrey, Jack Zanger, Eric Dean White
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Never the Sinner at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until April 2, 2017.

Read Full Post »

Intimate Apparel
by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Gary Wayne Barker
New Jewish Theatre
January 26, 2017

Jacqueline Thompson, Julie Layton Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jacqueline Thompson, Julie Layton
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

A corset is an interesting garment. Its function is to be shaping, constraining, but it can also be seen as a thing of beauty and a vessel for self-expression. In Lynn Nottage’s insightful Intimate Apparel,  the playwright explores the ideas of social restriction as well as the desire for self-expression in early 1900’s New York City. Currently on stage at New Jewish Theatre, this play is a well-cast, fascinating exploration.

The play’s central figure is Esther (Jacqueline Thompson), a 35-year-old single African-American woman who lives in a boarding house run by the gossipy but well-meaning Mrs. Dickson (Linda Kennedy) and makes a living sewing “intimate garments” for ladies. Esther can’t read or write, but she is a gifted seamstress with dreams of opening a beauty parlor someday, and who stashes away her earnings in a quilt that she has made. The play is structured in segments that are mostly named after articles of clothing that Esther makes or fabrics that she uses. She purchases the fabrics from Mr. Marks (Jim Butz), a kind Jewish shopkeeper with whom she shares a friendship that, in another time, might blossom into something more. Her main clients that we see are Mrs. Van Buren (Julie Layton), a rich white society woman who’s trapped in a loveless marriage with a man who is increasingly disappointed in her inability to produce children; and her longtime friend Mayme (Andrea Purnell), who works as a prostitute in a nearby saloon and who serves as a contrast to “good girl” Esther, who has played by the rules in hopes of achieving her dream of a good life. There’s also George (Chauncy Thomas), a laborer from Barbados who works on the construction of the Panama Canal, with whom Esther exchanges letters–with the help of Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme, who write them for her–with the increasing promise of marriage. But what happens when George arrives in New York? Will he be the same kind, charming man of his letters or will he be something different? And what of Esther’s dreams, and those of her friends and those around her?

This is an extremely well-structured play with richly developed characters, incisively examining the strict social confines of the society it depicts, and also casting some light on the expectations of women in society even today. Racial, class, and gender differences and expectations are all explored, as well as the ideas of dreams vs. reality and personal agency vs. social pressure. The cast is uniformly strong, led by Thompson in a sensitive, courageous portrayal of the hopeful but conflicted Esther. Her scenes with Butz as the kind Mr. Marks are a highlight, as are her scenes with Purnell’s vivacious but somewhat self-deluded Mayme. There are also strong performances from Kennedy as the nosy but caring Mrs. Dickson, Layton as the refined, confined and curious Mrs. Van Buren, and Thomas in an impressive portrayal of two versions of George–the idealized form in the letters, and the much more complex George of reality.  It’s an extremely cohesive ensemble with no weak links, and all the performers display excellent presence and chemistry in their scenes together.

As is usual for NJT, the technical aspects of this production are truly excellent. The troupe’s black box theatre has been arranged in a more traditional proscenium set-up reflecting its early 20th Century setting, and Peter and Margery Spack’s set is impeccably detailed and period accurate. It’s like being transported to a different time and place, and the well demarcated performance areas also reflect the show’s theme of social restrictions and “boxes” into which its characters are expected to fit, although the staging allows the performers to wander into the other areas of the set as they explore and sometimes test the boundaries into which they are confined. There’s also excellent, meticulously accurate costume design by Michele Friedman Siler and intense, atmospheric lighting by Sean Savoie. This is a play set in very specific time and place, well-represented here and augmented by Amanda Werre’s sound design and era-specific ragtime music.

Intimate Apparel is a play that veers from optimistic to heartbreaking to stubbornly hopeful, and all those aspects are well-portrayed in NJT’s first-rate production. As I’ve come to expect from this ambitious company, excellence is on display here. It’s a journey to the past richly portrayed but also an exploration of some issues that are still very much in the present. It’s an exquisitely constructed theatrical experience.

Jacqueline Thompson, Andrea Purnell Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jacqueline Thompson, Andrea Purnell
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Intimate Apparel  at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 12, 2017.

Read Full Post »

Driving Miss Daisy
by Alfred Uhry
Directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga
New Jewish Theatre
December 4 2016

Kathleen Sitzer, J. Samuel Davis Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Kathleen Sitzer, J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Driving Miss Daisy is one of those plays that has become so well-known for its film version that it may become difficult to abandoned preconceived notions when going to see the stage version.  I personally had never seen the play before seeing the current production at New Jewish Theatre, although I had seen the film several times.  I know that a good production can easily make one set aside other versions if you give it a chance, and NJT’s production is an excellent production. It’s a story of a 25-year relationship and a specific time and place, challenging assumptions and more preconceived notions, and the casting is ideal.

The familiar story, based on playwright Alfred Uhry’s own family history, centers around widowed retired schoolteacher Daisy Werthan (Kathleen Sitzer) and chauffeur Hoke Coleburn (J. Samuel Davis), who is hired by Daisy’s son Boolie (Eric Dean White) after Daisy crashes her car and becomes too much of an insurance risk to drive. The proud Daisy insists she doesn’t need a driver at first, but Hoke is persistent and their initially rocky relationship grows closer over the years. The relationship dynamic is the centerpiece of this show, but the context is also extremely important, and although it’s not primarily a play about social commentary, it can be challenging in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  The rich, Jewish Daisy insists that she isn’t rich and that she isn’t prejudiced against African-Americans, although the way she treats Hoke, especially at first, often belies that declaration. Even the seemingly easygoing Boolie is too afraid for his reputation to attend a dinner in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been invited to speak. The effort here is more to portray a specific relationship as it unfolds in the time and place–Atlanta, Georgia from 1948 until 1973–within the context of the highly restrictive and often volatile culture of the time. The relationship is the  centerpiece, however. The characters are well-drawn and the play tells a compelling, believable story in its roughly 90 minute running time.

Uhry’s play is well-structured and serves as an excellent showcase for its actors, led by NJT’s Artistic Director Sitzer in a rare acting role as Daisy.  Sitzer is excellent in portraying the complex character of Daisy, who is proud, stubborn, and set in her ways, but whose stubbornness masks an underlying vulnerability.  Davis is also excellent as Hoke, convincingly portraying the character’s developing relationship with Daisy and displaying a great deal of personal strength and determination. Both performers excel in the witty banter as well as the more dramatic moments of the piece, and the growth of their relationship from antagonistic to affectionate is convincing, as is their characters’ aging over the years as presented in the story. White also gives a strong performance as the personable, conciliatory Boolie.

The set, as is usual for productions at NJT, is impressive. Scenic designer Dunsi Dai has created a believable, elegantly appointed house fronted by a representation of a car in which Hoke and Daisy make their various excursions. The costumes, by Michele Friedman Siler, are detailed and appropriately evocative of time and place, as well as the changing styles over the years. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Mark Wilson that helps to evoke the changing of time and season, and strong sound design by Zoe Sullivan. Music from the times is effectively used to help set the scene in various moments, as well.

This is a well-known play that I think is more complex than is often perceived. It can be sharp, challenging, and convicting as well as funny and heartwarming in moments.  Mostly, it’s a portrayal of particular distinctive characters and their growing, complex relationship.  New Jewish Theatre’s production is an excellent presentation of this memorable story.

Kathleen Sitzer, Eric Dean White, J. Samuel Davis Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Kathleen Sitzer, Eric Dean White, J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Driving Miss Daisy at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until December 18, 2016.

Read Full Post »

Golda’s Balcony
by William Gibson
Directed by Henry I. Schvey
New Jewish Theatre
October 6, 2016

Lavonne Byers Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Lavonne Byers
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish theatre is opening their 20th Anniversary Season with a one-woman show about a formidable 2oth Century figure, and starring a prominent and celebrated local St. Louis performer. It’s a show that has been a notable showcase for various well-known and celebrated actresses, and at NJT that’s also the case.  Centered by a first-rate performance and featuring strong production values, Golda’s Balcony serves a character study as well as a history lesson.

Lavonne Byers plays Meir during the time she was Prime Minister of Israel, specifically in 1973 at the time of the Yom Kippur War. Although that’s the starting point and the play keeps returning there to witness Meir’s negotiations with various officials in her own cabinet as well as other notable world leaders such as US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the play also features Meir telling the story of her life, jumping around a little bit in history but essentially in a mostly linear fashion. She talks about her childhood as an immigrant from Russia to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and her growing up in the USA and the shaping of the values, beliefs and ideals that would shape her life as an adult and as an activist in the movement to establish a Jewish state in the Middle East. Meir’s personal and political relationships, along with her role in the founding of the nation of Israel and her struggle between her loyalty to her cause and her family, are all issues that are brought up, along with various other issues in her life as an influential leader and her rise to the position of Prime Minister. Much of the story seems to hold close to established facts of what is known about Meir’s life, although there are some disputed elements, such as the role of nuclear weapons in the negotiation process during the Yom Kippur war. Mostly, it’s a nuanced portrait of a complex figure in world history, and it’s the performance that’s most crucial.

As Meir, this production has found an ideal portrayer in Byers, who is able to bring out the sense of strong leadership and passion for her cause that would characterize a powerful, influential woman such as Meir. The contradictions and dilemmas in her life are not glossed over, but Byers’ performance is engaging, bringing this woman’s life to the stage in a compelling, believable way. In everything to her stories about her childhood, her family life and her troubled marriage, and her various political dealings, Byers is convincing as Meir, displaying the dilemmas, compromises and controversies of a person so active on the world stage on a human scale, with determination, candor, and occasionally wit and humor.

Also compelling are the expertly crafted technical elements of the show. Peter and Margery Spack’s set is both literal and figurative at once, representing a detailed rendition of Meir’s office, but surmounted with the looming sculpture of a large rock that literally hangs over Meir’s head much of the time, seeming to represent the commitment Meir has made to uphold the convictions of the Israeli state, as referenced in the stories she tells. There is also excellent use of wall-filling projections to help illustrate Meir’s stories and the important figures in her life. The production also features excellent use of lighting, designed by Kimberly Klearman, to highlight the more emotional moments of the production, and clear, effective sound designed by Robin Weatherall. Costume Designer Michele Friedman Siler has outfitted Byers in an appropriately era-specific and professional suit, which Byers wears throughout the show.

New Jewish Theatre continues to produce first rate, thought-provoking productions in St. Louis. Their legacy of 20 years of excellence is well-reflected in their newest season opener. Golda’s Balcony is an ideal showcase for both this theatre company and its well-chosen lead performer. There’s still plenty of time to check it out.

Lavonne Byers Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Lavonne Byers
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Golda’s Balcony at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until October 30, 2016.

Read Full Post »

Yentl
By Leah Napolin with Isaac Bashevis Singer
Music by Jill Sobule
Directed by Edward Coffield
New Jewish Theatre
May 11, 2016

Shanara Gabrielle, Andrew Michael Neiman Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Shanara Gabrielle, Andrew Michael Neiman
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

This is my introduction to Yentl. It’s a celebrated story by Isaac B. Singer, and an extremely famous movie written by, directed by, and starring Barbra Streisand. The latest production at New Jewish Theatre, however, is the first version of this story that I’ve seen. I knew what the story was about, and I’d seen clips from the Streisand film, but mostly I was going into this production with nothing to compare it to. Maybe that’s better, because I didn’t have to put aside any preconceived notions or compare this cast to the filmed one. This is a different Yentl, anyway, with a score by Jill Sobule rather than by Streisand and with a script by Leah Napolin in collaboration with Singer.  At NJT, it’s a thoughtful, thought-provoking look at gender roles, personal identity, and a quest for love and acceptance.

The story, set in late 19th Century Poland, follows a studious young Jewish girl, Yentl (Shanara Gabriele) who feels outcast from her own culture because she doesn’t like “girl things” and has aspirations to be a scholar–a role that was traditionally reserved for men. When her loving, reluctantly supportive father (Terry Meddows) dies, Yentl doesn’t feel at home in her village, where she’s expected to find a husband, settle down, and forget about studying. Yentl is determined to learn, though, so she dresses as a boy, leaves her home village, and travels to another so that she will be able to attend yeshiva and study with other young scholars. In this environment, Yentl (now calling herself Anshel) initially thrives, and she forms a close friendship with her study partner Avigdor (Andrew Michael Neiman), although that closeness soon leads to an attraction that confuses them both. Yentl as Anshel also gains a good reputation in the village, attracting the attention of Avigdor’s former fiancee Hadass (Taylor Steward) and her parents (Meddows, Peggy Billo), who are eager for their daughter to marry. Without spoiling too much, I’ll just say that much drama ensues, as Yentl, Avigdor, and Hadass find themselves in difficult and confusing situations that continue to challenge their views of themselves and their culture, as well as threatening to reveal Yentl’s determinedly kept secret.

This is an intriguing play that tries to be a lot of things at once, including a drama, a comedy, and a musical. There’s even a Fiddler on the Roof reference thrown in. There’s a critique of gender roles in a society where the separation of men and women leads men to view women as idealized objects, confined to their traditional roles and not expected to learn alongside men. The strictly defined roles are limiting for both the men and the women, but it’s the women who seem to be more restricted.

Gabrielle is earnest and engaging as the determined, studious and enigmatic Yentl. She’s got a strong voice and delivers the songs with confidence, as well as effectively portraying Yentl’s love of study and her conflicted feelings for Avigdor, Hadass, and everyone around her. Neiman is energetic and amiable as Avigdor, vividly conveying his idealized love and longing for Hadass as well as his increasingly confusing attachment to Yentl-as-Anshel. The rapport and chemistry between Gabrielle and Neimann is evident, as is the affection and growing sense of suspicion in the relationship between Yentl and Hadass. There are also strong supporting performances, particularly from Jennifer Theby-Quinn as the strong-willed, widowed shopkeeper Pesha, and Meddows as Yentl’s father and also as Alter, Haddass’s father. The show boasts an excellent ensemble of performers–including Peggy Billo, Amy Loui, Will Bonfiglio, Brendan Ochs, Luke Steingruby, and Jack Zanger–playing various roles, from yeshiva students to townspeople, and all do an excellent job.

The strong sense of time and place is supported by the excellent, detailed set  designed by Peter and Margery Spack. There are also excellent costumes by Michele Friedman Siler and striking lighting by Seth Jackson. The music is well-sung by the cast and expertly performed by musicians Aaron Doerr, Adam Anello, and Dana Hotle, under the direction of music director Charlie Mueller.

Yentl at New Jewish Theatre takes the audience back in time, but incisively deals with issues of gender, culture, and faith with memorable music and strongly defined characters. Although sometimes the tone of the songs doesn’t match the tone of the script, for the most part it’s an engaging, thought-provoking journey of discovery and social critique. It’s a fitting play to end a season that’s focused on personal identity, and it’s another reminder of the tradition of excellence on stage at New Jewish Theatre.

Shanara Gabrielle Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Shanara Gabrielle
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre’s production of Yentl runs until June 5, 2016. 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »