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Bar Mitzvah Boy
By Elyse Sommer
As Eliot passage through the traditional ritual for 13-year-old Jewish boys isn't smooth sailing, neither has it been so for the musical adaptation of Jack Rosenthal's award-winning 1976 teleplay about a bar mitzvah from hell that's nevertheless a delightfully funny portrait of a kvetchy and full of quirks, upwardly mobile family. In fact, even with a score by golden age of musical theater composer Jule Styne and lyrics by Don Black, Bar Mitzvah Boy, the musical has had an even bumpier ride than that experienced by the Green family.
But while Styne's Gypsy had enjoyed a successful West End run, the musical adaptation of Rosenthal's 75-minute, small cast play probably should not have been turned into an extravaganza or opened in the West End. It lasted for just 77 performances.
The short-lived musical remained a minor and mostly forgotten item in both the otherwise very successful playwright and composer's resumes. That is, until two years ago when the show underwent another rite of growing up, this time by growing smaller and thus recapturing its author's original intent.
Book writer David Thompson was the "rabbi" to put the show's focus back on the Bar Mitzvah Boy, portrayed his family more sensitively though still realistically true to type — in short, edged it closer to being a more universally appealing coming of age story with the excitement of a major celebration driving the plot. It's this book, plus some additional songs and lyrics, that's now on stage at the York's home on East 54th Street, for an 11-performance run.
In case you've never been to one of the Mufti Musicals, these are essentially concert stagings, with the actors in street clothes, reading and singing from scripts and just an occasional easy for the cast to move on and off stage. Director Annette Jollies has assembled very able cast.
Even 13-year-old Peyton Lusk is a seasoned musical theater performers (he recently was the alternate Bar Mitzwah boy Jason in the Broadway production of Falsettos). The fact that Ned Eisenberg has appeared mostly in straight plays serves him well in adding feeling and nuance to his performance despite the heavy overall reliance on scripts. His Victor and Lori Wilner's Rita (the story's most typical Jewish character) have some lovely scenes together.
Since this is my first encounter with Bar Mitzvah Boy in any format, I can only say that this small cast and the newly scripted version for the most part effectively tell a very simple story that follows a classic dramatic arc: The scene setting beginning that establishes Eliot's discomfort at being part of the fuss and planning with which his family is ushering him into their grown-up world, and lets us get to know the often volatile Green family's dynamic for ourselves. . . the middle with its one big surprise when the family finally arrives in the synagogue and Eliot makes all the plans go haywire. . .the final part that ties up all the loose ends — in this case that ending is an inevitably happy, if not as planned, celebration.
That feel good finale is strategically and beautifully set in motion by a scene between Eliot and his sister Lesley (a terrific Julie Benko) right after that synagogue surprise. It's on the same park bench where it takes place that we also several times meet Denise (Casey Watkins), a delightful and plot-propelling school friend of Eliot's.
Bar Mitzvah Boy is still familiar stuff and would benefit from losing at least ten minutes. It's still most appealing to Jewish theater goers and also Jule Styne fans. But here's where I had my biggest problem with this Mufti take. Except for their instant ear hugging songs, most musical scores need to be heard several times to be fully appreciated. With this production's overture and eighteen songs orchestrated by David Loud for a single piano, this made judging this score even more difficult.
While music director Darren R. Cohen is a splendid pianist, one-band arrangements rarely do justice to the music they accompany. In this case, it left me wondering if this was simply a very minor Styne score or whether it was that solo orchestra that made too many of the songs sound pleasant but repetitive — with the main exceptions about the latter being the distinctly Jewish flavored "Hammakom" by Rabbi Sherman (Neal Benari) and his and Eliot's "Prayer", and Eliot's "This Time Tomorrow"
Still, in a grown-up world full of men who've never learned to let the sun shine on their better natures, Eliot's "I've Just Begun" ends Bar Mitzvah Boy on a timely note. Being bar mitzvahed, like being elected to high office, doesn't mean that you now know it all. Mazel Tov, Eliot and company!
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The Bar Mitzvah Boy
Book adaptation by David Thompson based on the teleplay by Jack Rosenthal
Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics Don Black
New Musical Arrangements by David Loud
Cast (in order of sppearance): Peyton Lusk (Eliot Green), Lori Wilner (Rita Green), Ned Eisenberg (Victor Green), Julie Benko (Lesley Green), Neal Benari (Rabbi Sherman), Casey Watkins (Denise), Ben Fankhauser (Harold), Tim Jerome (Grandad).
Lighting: Graham Kindred
Production Consultant: James Morgan
Production Manager: Kevin Maloof
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, without intermission
York Theater Company on East 54th Street
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 2/11/18 press performance
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