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A CurtainUp Review
A Letter to Harvey Milk
Leslea Newman's 1988 collection of short stories, A Letter to Harvey Milk , inspired the book by Jerry James, Laura I. Kramer and Cheryl Stern. Kramer adds music with lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz and additional lyrics by Cheryl Stern. The musical was selected for the New York Musical Theatre Festival's 2012 Next Link Project in 2012 and won five awards at NYMF 2012.
Harry Weinberg (Adam Heller) is a reticent widower who forms a friendship with his teacher, Barbara (Julia Knitel), a 30-year-old lesbian who is seeking information about her Jewish heritage. When she gives Harry an assignment to write a letter to someone who is no longer alive, he does not choose his late wife or memories of friends from the old country. Insead, he writes to Harvey Milk, the gay San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated in 1978. To his surprise, Barbara, who was influenced by Milk, wants to publish his letter and the story behind it. Harry refuses, believing it could lead to exposing secrets that he has kept to himself, some not even known to his wife. It's a stalemate and his friendship with Barbara is threatened.
Directed by Evan Pappas from present to past and back again, the characters gradually unveil their secrets and come to appreciate the love, humor, hope and traditions of their lives. Adam Heller is a confident singer, likable and persuasive as the private Harry although he looks to be more in his early 60's than the script's late 70's. As Barbara, Julie Knitel's Barbara is a lanky and loquacious blonde who has been estranged from her parents since she told them she was a lesbian butyearns to learn more about her immigrant grandparents and their Jewish culture. She shows vulnerability.
Michael Bartoli plays Harvey Milk, the outgoing politician who became friends with Harry. In fact, Harry became a father figure, as reflected in their anthem-like duet, "No One'll Do For You." Jeremy Greenbaum, Aury Krebs, C.J. Pawlikowski fill in as characters from the past.
As Frannie, the hovering ghost of Harry's vexing late wife, Cheryl Stern lurks in the edges of Harry's mind, reminding him of their life together, keeping his privacy and chiding him about getting too close to Barbara. She provides humor but also slows the action. Stern (who also wrote some of the lyrics) is a mix of sentimentality ("Weren't We?") and kitchy humor — and can she deliver a tune! Upon learning that Barbara is a lesbian, she belts out "What a Shanda," a slightly hysterical audience pleaser with rhymes like, "If God in his wisdom made woan for man/ What putz had the chutzpah to futz with his plan?" And in fine vaudeville style, just when you thought the song was over, Frannie pops back in with another chorus. "What a shame, what a shanda/ A gorgeous face like hers she's gonna squanda?"
Newman's dialogue is overly generous with Yiddish colloquialisms. They sometimes work against the story's poignancy but delights Barbara as she learns about her grandparents' culture. Dialogue is enhanced by Laura I. Kramer's music that adds ethnic minor chord moods of meditation, celebration and tunes to Schwartz' and Stern's Yiddish colloquialisms in the lyrics.
Eventually Barbara and Harry reveal their personal baggage, sharing secrets that have informed their lives. Over 90 minutes, a connection is made between depictions of American homosexuals in the 1970's and '80's and gays in the Nazi concentration camps.
Daid L. Arsenault's scene design shows a few props, a bed, a table with several easily movable chairs for scenes of the past and present. A second level holds Music Director/pianist Jeffrey Lodin, cellist Fred Rose, Jeff Schiller on woodwinds and Tristan Marzeski on percussion and contractor. There's also an open space for Harvey Milk's speeches and assassination to be portrayed in slow-motion. Christopher Akerlind's lighting adds a muted dreaminess that fits the memories. Other scenes from the past includes a 1940's sparse setting for Harry in the concentration camps and later, a bookstore where Barbara met her first love, played by Aury Krebs.
Forced to face their loneliness and haunting secrets, Harry is finally able to give Barbara the acceptance denied her by her parents and he receives a friendship much like the one he treasured with Harvey Milk. If not a timeless American musical, A Letter to Harvey Milk offers an honest truth in a time that needs it.
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Letter to Harvey Milk
Book: Jerry James and Ellen M. Schwartz inspired by title story of Leslea Newman's book of short stories, A Letter to Harvey Milk
Music and Lyrics: Laura I. Kramer and Ellen M. Schwartz, with additional lyrics by Cheryl Stern (lyrics)
Director: Evan Pappas
Musical Direction: Jeffrey Lodin
Orchestration and Additional Arrangements: Ned Paul Ginsburg
Cast: Adam Heller, Julia Knitel, Cheryl Stern and Michael Bartoli, Jeremy Greenbaum, Aury Krebs, C.J. Pawlikowski.
Set Design: David Arsenault
Costume Design: Debbi Hobson
Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind
Sound Design: David Margolin Lawson
Produced: Lisa Dozier King
Running Time: 90 minutes. No intermission
Theatre: Acorn Theatre on 410-W. 42nd St NY
Tickets: $79. https://www.telecharge.com. Box Office Hours, Mon.-Sat. Noon - 6pm, Sunday: Noon - to curtain
Performances: Wed.- Fri. at 7pm. Wed. and Sat. at 2pm and Sat. at 8pm. Sun. 3pm. Beginning Mar. 20, performances on Tues. at 7pm.
Previews: 02/21/18. Opens: 03/6/18. Closes: 05/13/18. Box Office Hours, Monday - Saturday: Noon - 6pm, Sunday: Noon - to curtain.
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 03/03/18
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