Is there room for a klezmer musical on Broadway? I think so. The band for “Shlemiel the First,” led by the Folksbiene National Yiddish Theatre’s Zalmen Mlotek, is so good that during the exit music a sizeable portion of the audience drifted down toward the pit instead of up to the exits. Costumed as an Old Country klezmer band, they even march onstage sometimes, but it’s at intermission and afterward that they really wail. And that is terrific stuff, particularly Dmitri “Zisl” Slepovitch’s clarinet, Yaeko Miranda Elmaleh’s violin and Mlotek’s keyboard. Hoo boy, good.
When the show travels — and it should, if tweaked a bit — the creators should put in more places for the band to strut their stuff. The show by Robert Brustein, with lyrics by Arnold Weinsten and music by Hankus Netsky, is intact from the version we reviewed in Montclair in 2010 (read that review here, and our interview with Brustein and Mlotek, which highlights the Yiddish theater sources, here).
Based on a Chelm story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Brustein’s play is kind of silly and Borscht Belt-y, as a Chelm story for the stage should be, and poignant, as Singer always is. It’s a lot of fun. Kids will laugh at the high spirited idiocy; parents will chuckle at the refrains of “gevalt” and sigh as the Shlemiels fall in love again, while believing they are cheating.
In this town of fools, Shlemiel, the beadle (Michael Iannucci), who carries a large dreydl to help him make decisions, is sent on a mission to spread the “wisdom” of the head sage, Gronam Ox (Jeff Brooks) through the world. But he encounters Chaim Rascal (Darryl Winslow), who, true to his name, tricks Shlemiel into returning to Chelm thinking he’s still going on. When Shlemiel gets home, he concludes there must be a second Chelm.
It’s a funny gag that grows funnier with repetition, à la “who’s on first.” Each time Shlemiel praises this wife as nicer than the old one it’s hilarious. But it takes all of Act One to get there. The show could be edited — it’s not uncommon for Broadway musicals to be 90 minutes without intermission today. Some songs stop the action (even though they are funny once you get into them). But others are just dynamite, particularly “We’re Talking Chelm.” Gordon’s direction is lively and the slapstick is good; his choreography is a bit flat, but I think that’s partly because the show has no obvious settings for dance — no simchas.
Iannucci’s low key, winsome simplicity still charms, and Brooks’s blustering sage is lovable. His line of five sages bring new meaning to “yes men,” interrupting one another to agree, and echoing Ox like a Gilbertian chorus (Brustein’s book shines with them). Amy Warren plays Trina Rytza (Alice Pleyton has sadly passed), with a songbird, old-fashioned soprano and a sweetness that mellows her nagging. I wish Darryl Winslow’s Chaim Rascal had more to do — he’s a cuddly trickster (he also plays Shlemiel’s son, and one of the sages).
I still chuckle at Catherine Zuber’s costumes, which include dresses with floppy built-in breasts for the women and huge beards for the sages (sages and women are mostly double cast), and Robert Israel’s sloping, asymmetrical set has a folk feel to it. Overall, it’s a charmer with a lot of zest. Bring on the klezmer musical!
Shlemiel the First runs at NYU’s Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 556 LaGuardia Place, through December 31.