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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The collaborators have fashioned a humorous, lively, adventurous and passionate musical that succeeds admirably in exalting without exhausting its feminist tract. Houghton, whose name will forever be linked to the classic film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (starring her aunt Katharine Hepburn) in which she played the daughter, has also forged a notable career as a playwright and author. Take heart. The score that Adams and McDowell (The Wind in the Willows) have provided is neither rock or pop nor noticeably flavored with post modernist touches. It is, however, sprightly, sweet, occasionally quaint and conventional, but always unapologetically easy on the ears.
Now having its world premiere, Bookends episodically follows the unconventional careers of Stern and Rostenberg in a field noted for its domination by men. The musical also joyously embraces their devotion to their work and to the bond that grew stronger from the time they they first meet as young women in college in 1930 (Leona was a senior at NYU and Mady a freshman at Barnard) to the point when, in their 90s, we see them at work awaiting the final proofs of their memoirs.
The musical is structured as a flashback. This works efficiently to bring us back and forth and through time, each episode filling us in with more details of Leona's and Mady's dispositions and personalities. The show makes a point of illustrating the reasons they chose to spend a life together instead of with the men by whom they are courted. Seen at first in their dotage, the slightly crusty Leona (Susan G. Bob) and the more complacent Mady (Kathleen Goldpaugh) ponder their love affair with books while occupied with choosing the right pictures for their memoir.
The time is the present, the place their Manhattan apartment. A prelude, "Leona's Dream" (as played by on-stage pianist Henry Aronson), is the musical catalyst that transports us to the Bronx in 1918 and the respective homes of their German-Jewish immigrant parents and family members, including two assigned to portray a pair of cocker spaniels. That each family moves about and relates to each other independently in the opening scene while occupying the same space is a feat ingeniously engineered by director Ken Jenkins. Jenkins, who is married to Houghton, but is probably best known for his role as Dr. Bob Kelso on the hit NBC TV series Scrubs, accomplishes quite a feat with a large cast on a relatively small stage. But Jenkins' cleverness isn't defined by this or by his consistently inventive staging; also by the performances from an excellent cast, all of whom sing well— especially Jenny Vallancourt, as the young bespectacled, serious-minded Leona and Robyn Kemp, as the young and vivacious Mady.
While much is made of the blossoming and fulfilling relationship between Leona and Mady, there is no attempt to insinuate that their relationship is a sexual one, except perhaps in a scene in which Leona's traditional and distressed Papa (Howard Pinhas)and Mama (Amie Bermowitz), upon hearing that the women want to live together, sing "What Will People Think?" There are several scenes in which the young Leona and Mady are both courted and pursued by ardent young men. Leona may worry "Will I be alone?" and Mady may wonder "Will I be well known?", but we are given ample examples that they are determined not to obey the rules and conventions preferred by their families.
Bookends shares its spoken libretto and musical language spontaneously and there is a nice ebb and flow between the two that only occasionally takes a break from what might be called a fantasy moment. Leona isn't above letting us know she wouldn't have minded an affair with Byron or Keats. Their dreamy contemplations about being "lonely and blue" or "Waiting for Mr. Right," is a reasonable response to the kind of women men expected and exemplified in two contrastingly styled songs that define women they know as either a flirty showgirl or as a submissive housefrau.
Except for Leona and Mady, the musical's performers are called upon to double, which they do with infectious aplomb. Eric Colllins is a standout as Leona's earnest and patient beau Carl who just cannot understand when the love of his life calls "the old world's a prison." Leona hears "destiny calling" as surely as Mady. Despite the insistence by her mathematician beau Rusty (Matt Golden), that "Numbers Make Sense," Mady is really ignited by realizing she has found a life-long friend.
In one of the musical's more adventuring scenes, Leona has gone bravely to Strasbourg, Germany in 1939 to dig through the archives and complete a master thesis on Mary Magdelene and get her PHD amidst the ardent if inappropriate attentions paid to her by Mr. Ritter (Alan Souza), a married man with six children. It is Ritter who discovers that Leona has "Fingerspitzengefuhl," a gift that deserves the delightful song it prompts. Pamela Bob is terrific as Deborah, the woman who brings the proofs of their memoir and eventually stays to work for them.
It was Houghton's own investigation into the life and work of Louisa May Alcott that led her to meet both Stern and Rostenberg. It was their discovery and uncovering in 1942 of Alcott's literary secret life as a writer of pulp fiction under the pseudonym of A. M Barnard that became part of the plot. There is considerable pleasure in watching Leona and Mady as intrepid investigators much in the same way as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the team that also humorously find their way into one of the many winning songs that provide purely diverting moments from two exceptional lives.
Bookends, with its large cast and female empowering theme is sure to have a future.
The musical is not to be confused with the play Bookends by M.J. Feely that recently received its world premiere in Philadelphia.
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The Little Mermaid
Shrek The Musical
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide