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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. 

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