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A CurtainUp Review
Rothschild & Sons
By Elyse Sommer
Since the York is the Big Apple's only theater that presents only musicals, this new-old version had to fit the less is more principle behind all the York's shows. That "less" means a cast of eleven instead of forty, an orchestra of just four musicians (the actors doubling up on roles and the musicians playing several instruments) and the late 18th Century setting evoked without lavish stagecraft.
Of course, the pleasures of an intimate production and a cast with the acting chops and voices to bring it off can go just so far to compensate for the grander presentation found in a large Broadway house. A really sturdy dramatic story and score are crucial. And when it comes to a new approach to telling that story, questions arise as to whether this is really an enhancement.
So here's a bottom line answer: It's impossible to take Bock and Harnick's seventh collaboration out of the shadow of Fiddler on the Roof. However, Rothschild & Sons does indeed offer a refreshing new look at this show's best features: its many sparkling period flavored songs with their narrative pushing lyrics, and the smart compression of that narrative.
The new title explains the differences. The advantage that Fiddler. . . will always have over The Rothschilds is that the theme of changing traditions came about through the marriages of the milkman's five endearing daughters, Teyve's folksy charm, and the drama of forced exile. It's an irresistibly moving tragi-romance. The Rothschildd, on the other hand, is a fact-based story about the sons of a coin dealer who leave their Frankfurt, Germany ghetto to achieve extraordinary power.
The creative team behind the show realized that the Rothschild story, was inspiring but short on the emotional oomph of the Fiddler story. So they worked a romance into the second act for one of the sons along with a couple of love songs. But it always felt sandwiched in. The big splashy production values did keep keep the show open for over 500 performances, but it never had a spectacularly successful after life becasue
That brings us to the current production which ditches the original subplot and shifts focus to the father's relationship with his sons, turning it into what Harnick and Yellen now describe as a father and son love story.
Well, I wouldn't quite call it a love story. But the shift in emphasis as well as the scaled-down staging work well with tightly focused intermissionless format. The arrival of each new son is amusingly announced by the increasingly exhausted mother and brings Mayer closer to the kingdom he sings about ( I Can Go Just So Far/ But With Sons. . ./ sons Extend A Man's Vision/Sons Extend A Man's Reach/ Sons Expand A Man's Kingdom). The father and son love affair is not without its ups and downs — rebellions about breaking free from the constraints of the ghetto, disagreements about whether Nathan, the son who becomes the family's London emissary, puts too much trust in the aristocrats he's learned to deal with.
The show still lacks the typical musical's de-rigueur romantic component. But Robert CucciBuoli, who played young Nathan Rothschild in a 1990 revival at the now defunct American Jewish Theater, brings his operatic voice and plenty of emotional heat to the role of the pater familias. He commands the stage, whether with his sons and other ensemble members or alone, as with "He Tossed a Coin" and the heart-touching "In My Own Lifetime."
In the only other part that's not double cast, Glory Crampton as Gutele makes the most of the charming "One Room" and "Just a Map." Christopher M. Williams now plays the son whose risk-taking almost ruins and also saves the family's fortune and determination to close the Frankfurt ghetto. The father-son tensions are nicely rendered in their "He Never Listens" duet. Williams as well as the four other actors playing the first of the future dynasty deliver the goods in terms of singing; and all manage to fill other small parts. To add to the dramatic momentum of the family members' confrontations there's Mark Pinter to make a strong impression as both Prince William Herries and the duplicitous Prince Metternich.
The production relies mostly on Carrie Robbins' costumes to evoke time and place. There's also just a modicum of movement choreography by Denis Jones to evoke the elegance of Nathan's entry into the world of the British high life.
With the possible exception of the rousing "Everything." the songs, including several which were added, aren't breakout numbers like "If I Were a Rich Man" and "Tradition" However, the small orchestra with its piano/synthesizer, violin, cello and reeds (Jeff Klitz, Michele Irion Fox, Sean Katsuyama, Matt Lepek) has brought out the lilt and airiness of the music. And, happily, nothing is over amplified to drown out the well worth hearing lyrics (including some new ones).
As Fiddler. . . is about to enjoy yet another revival on Broadway, this modest new version remains a rarity courtesy of the invaluable York Theater Company. Maybe the people at PBS who choose the Off-Broadway shows to include in their wonderful Theater Close-ups series might use this unfussy Rothschild & Sons to embrace musical theater.