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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Golem of Havana
By Elyse Sommer
Together with composer Salomon Lerner and lyricist Len Shiff, Hausmann has fashioned a complex multicultural book musical. It intermixes a European holocaust survivor story with the about to explode overthrow of Cuba's dictator Fulgencio Batista by Fidel Castro. As the story shifts between thematic threads, so the score ranges from Klezmer to Salsa.
Unlike so many musicals these days, The Golem of Havana is not an adaptation of a film; nor is it an update of an old hit or, as is the case with Living On Love which recently premiered at Williamstown. It interestingly also falls within the genre of librettos tackling serious themes without the usual lighter fare with happy endings.
Yet, though an original musical in the sense that it is not based on existing source material, this show has a decidedly derivative feel. One of its main characters, tailor Pinchas Frankel (Gordon Stanley), may not be a yarmulke wearing orthodox Jew, but there's no missing his kinship to the tailor of one of the musical theater's enduring classics, Fiddler on the Roof which was beautifully revived at Barrington's Main Stage two summers ago ( review). This link to Fiddler. . . is even more evident in young Rebecca Frankel's (Julie Benko) nightmare scenes that evoke the Golem and her mother Yutka's (Jacqueline Antaramian) Holocaust ordeal.
Salomon Lerner's songs, the Klezmer as well as the spicy Salsa ones, have a foot-tapping beat. But, as is the case for Fiddler on the Roof's Teyve there's an "On the other hand. ." to this. Despite being enjoyably melodic, they don't stick to the ears like the hummers that buoyed Fiddler. . . or other Golden Age of Musical Theater hits.
And while I was never bored during the two hours, neither did I walk away with that exhilarating sense of having been privy to a first official production of a sure fire new musical hit. Another "on the other hands" is that Hausmann still needs to work on bringing off the challenge of combining the story of the aftermath of the Nazi's Holocaust with the end of Batista's dictatorship and the beginning of Castro's.
Missing details about the Frankel's postwar emigration from Hungary to Cuba need clarification. The character of the mother needs to deal with the confusing way she changes her attitude towards the wounded young terrorist whose arrival in her home drives home the theme of how wars have a way of never really ending, as the conundrums facing good people in times of extreme danger often repeat themselves. Yutka's climactic confrontation with Batista is way too melodramatic and unbelievable.
These "on the other hands" might have been avoided if Hausmann had turned over the director's job to someone more clear-eyed about needed changes. With the aid of Production Director Jeff Roudabush, Scenic and Lighting Designers Edwin Erminy and Mary Louise Geiger, the production does have some wonderful touches. The opening scene in which Benko's Rebecca begins her story with the show's theme song and title, is illustrated with some very effective shadow play behind a curtain which is then torn away and the performers remaining at the side of the stage when not part of the action. The "Night Thoughts" numbers about the Golem and Holocaust drama also make a strong dramatic impact.
The actors portraying the Frankel family sing and act well. Though Benko, at least initially, tends to be excessively over-intense, her "Yamaya" duet with Teo, the rebel son of her beloved maid Maria, is quite poignant. Antaramian sings well and at times meaningfully, as when she warns her daughter Tales, "You are Far Too old for fairyt-/he world is not your friend:/No one holds you when it's scary/ no one saves you in the end." But ultimately, she's stuck with a poorly developed character.
The standout performances, both in terms of acting and singing belong to Rheaumee Crenshaw as Maria and Ronald Alexander Peet as Teo. The play's two powerful Cubans —Danny Bolero as Arturo Perez, as Pinchas's steady customer and friend (until he's not his friend) and Felipe Gorostiza as Batista are not especially charismatic Gorostiza especially something of a cipher. However, both have their musical moments, in duets with Pinchas — Bolero with "Taking a Chance" and Gorostiza with "The Needle and the Thread."
The six-piece Orchestra, led by pianist Jason Yarcho, is excellent. No complaints either about costumer Armulfo Maidonado's work. For that matter, no complaints about Barrington Stage's continued commitment to new, worthy and challenging works. The horror of the Nazi Holocaust certainly deserves to be told again and again, as do the those about revolutions that don't really bring freedom. But the clichés of this multi-faceted musical needed to be ironed out before freezing it for reviewers to clock in.