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NY Round-up of Jewish theater--Spring/Summer 2006

What do we have by way of Jewish theater in New York, as summer gets under way? What are the long-running shows, the newcomers, the Broadway spectaculars, the brave little off-Broadway dramas, the present and future hits, the efforts that do not quite make it, the experiments that make theater history?

In general, this is a sparse time for Jewish productions. Several one-person shows, among them the excellent “Family Secrets” of Sherry Glaser have recently closed. But Broadway never fails. Certainly the biggest Broadway news this spring has been the staging (or rather restaging) of Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing.” This tale of a Bronx Jewish family in the Depression years is a lovely revival, which pays homage to Odets’ genius and to the play’s historical significance. Granted that the Bronx and/or Yiddish accents are missing, but the portrayals, particularly that of Zoe Wanamaker as the indomitable Bessie Berger, are right on target. At the moment, alas, the show is slated to close on June 11, but there’s always hope of an extension or a road show.

But “Bridge and Tunnel,” fortunately, enjoys a longer Broadway run—playing until July 9. This brilliant one-woman performance, with its collection of ethnic characters, began its life off-Broadway, but cried out for wider recognition. Among Sarah Jones’ hilarious portrayals are Jewish characters which are sensitively treated… And though “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial” can hardly be called a Jewish play, it does deal with ethical issues, as spelled out by writer Herman Wouk and director Jerry Zaks…. More clearly Jewish in feeling is Mel Brooks’ hilarious “The Producers,” which goes on and on charming audiences, hopefully forever.

The Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht ground-breaking show, “The Threepenny Opera” plays until June 25, despite mixed reviews for this particular production. The show, which attempts to turn “Threepenny” into “Cabaret,” misses the mark--despite Jim Dale’s mesmerizing number which comes too late. Yet it is an opportunity to see this rarely-produced classic…. “The Wedding Singer” is an energetic new musical which has its funny moments (as in one Jewish wedding scene), and offers two appealing young players in the leads. But it is disappointingly predictable, and its songs do not soar.… Disappointing, too, is the new show of Lisa Kron—a Jewish Lesbian writer who has mined her family background to good effect in the past. This time around Kron focuses on allergies and family relationships, but gets too involved in experimental staging techniques. Consequently she never delivers the emotional impact of which she is capable.

Off-Broadway has several pieces to offer, although shelf life is likely to be even shorter—depending on ticket sales and producer backing…. Nonetheless, at the moment “Anulla” by Emily Mann is holding forth, once again digging into Nazi history. In this case the story spins around a Jewish woman who passes for Aryan in Nazi Germany. (At the Theater at St. Luke’s until June 11.)…. The rather tasteless and highly popular “Jewtopia,” now almost two years old, continues its solid off-Broadway run. The show deals with a gentile boy who longs to meet Jewish girls. This, for some reason, seems to be a turn-on for audiences… And Sandra Bernhard, vitriolic and compelling as ever, continues her one-woman show (“Sandra Bernard: Everything Bad and Beautiful”) until July 9.

Upcoming off-Broadway shows are topped by the luscious Israeli performer Meital Dohan. Dohan spends most of the show semi-naked in a bathtub, while complaining bitterly of her treatment in this country. The show has its wildly funny moments, but even during its many lulls, she is something to see. Shows dates are yet to be announced… “Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi” is also due for a summer return run to New York. This charming tale of the one-time femme fatale of film (but really a nice Jewish girl) offers up painless, pleasant entertainment. Again, no dates yet announced.

Although the off-Broadway scene is volatile, with shows likely to close quickly, new offerings (oft-times Jewish in concept) are constantly surfacing. It is best to check out such New York publications as “The Village Voice” and “Time Out.”

And even when the shows are not specifically Jewish, the Jewish presence is pervasive. Consider such writers and composers as Richard Greenberg, Herman Wouk, Adam Guettel (Richard Rodgers’ grandson), Neil Simon, Richard Adler, Mel Brooks, Jonathan Larsen, Stephen Sondheim, Kurt Weill, Rebecca Feldman, Rachel Sheinkin. Their works currently light up the New York stage—and await your visit.

-- Irene Backalenick
May 24, 2006

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