Monday, February 12, 2018

BAR MITZVAH BOY: Rarely-Seen Jule Styne Musical Produced by York Theatre Company's Musicals in Mufti. Mazel Tov to All Involved!

Julie Benko, Peyton Lusk, Lori Wilner, and Ned Eisenberg
Photo by Ben Strothmann

The York Theatre’s minimalist Musicals in Mufti production of the rarely seen Jule Styne musical Bar Mitzvah Boy reveals no rediscovered gem from the composer of Bells Are Ringing, Funny Girl, and Gypsy. But if the company has not managed to pull the rabbi out of the hat with this one, Bar Mitzvah Boy’s place in the composer’s canon, along with a book that does a fine job of capturing all of the mishigas surrounding that mix of religious rite-of-passage and social event in the life of pretty much every 13-year-old Jewish boy, makes it a must-see for Styne fans or for seekers after elusive musicals.    

Despite its weaknesses, Bar Mitzvah Boy is exactly the kind of work that fulfills the mission of Musicals in Mufti. Broadway it ain’t, nor is it meant to be.  Rather, it provides a showcase for bare-bones presentations of little-known shows that are often to be found in the footnotes of musical history. Although the original 1978 London production was recorded, it is out of print (high-priced copies are available on the secondary market). So most visitors to the York will be hearing it for the first time, myself included.

Musically, it seems that Styne and lyricist Don Black were constrained by having to shoehorn their songs into an already extant work. Bar Mitzvah Boy was written as a BBC television play in 1976 by Jack Rosenthal. It was very well received at the time, a bittersweet story, realistically told, about a working class British family planning on a bar mitzvah for their son. The script, which has been revised, adapted, and otherwise tinkered with on several occasions (the book for the current version is credited to David Thompson), manages to stay anchored with a blend of warmth, humor, and family tsuris that co-mingle without flying completely over the top, even when things begin to melt down as the big day approaches. Yet when Styne and Black were invited to join the team bent on inflating the show into a full scale West End musical, it does appear they were directed to write a utilitarian score to fit what was already in place.    

To be sure, in the Mufti production the songs are not exactly being presented in the best possible light.  The “orchestra” consists of a piano (played by Darren R. Cohen), the lyrics are sometimes muffled, and several of the cast members were chosen more for their acting chops than for their singing skills. Yet, the characters are well drawn, and the cast does a good job conveying the story with scripts in hand. 

Eliot, the boy on the cusp on manhood, is effectively captured on paper and in the fine performance by Peyton Lusk, who, in a happy bit of fun fact, was understudy for the role of Jason, the bar mitzvah boy in the recent Broadway revival of Falsettos. The script beautifully expresses the churning experience of young adolescence. Eliot is something of a smartass, a bit defiant, floored by the religious meaning of the bar mitzvah, scared about what the responsibilities of “manhood” will entail, and increasingly cynical about what he sees as the hypocrisy of the adults around him as they show themselves to be imperfect.  
Also quite good are Lori Wilner and Ned Eisenberg as Eliot’s parents, who sing the bouncy number “This Time Tomorrow,” a mixture of pride and relief that all the planning and plotzing will finally come to an end (“No more rotten relations. No more dizzy sensations.  All my heart palpitations gone”).  

A fine supporting cast is also on hand, with Tim Jerome as Eliot’s grandfather, Julie Benko as Eliot’s sympathetic older sister Lesley, and Neal Benari as the rabbi, who offers up a touching song about the universal presence of God, which makes for a satisfying ending after Eliot flees the synagogue on the big day. Also on hand are Casey Watkins as Eliot’s Christian schoolmate, and Ben Fankhauser as Harold, Lesley’s nebbishy boyfriend and the designated peacemaker whenever things get too tense.  As a nice touch, the show, directed by Annette Jolles, is sprinkled with authentic portions of Hebrew liturgy and Yiddish expressions that everyone pronounces with the right inflection.  

No one is likely to argue that the world needs another large scale production of Bar Mitzvah Boy, but thanks and Mazel Tov to the York Theatre Company for giving us the opportunity to catch this piece of musical history as part of its three-show tribute to Julius Kerwin Stein, aka Jule Styne. Next up: a Musicals in Mufti production of Subways Are For Sleeping.


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