In a rare winter where Christian and Jewish holidays overlap, the new sound this Christmas is klezmer. Adapted and conceptualized by Robert Brustein, the founding director of the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre, Shlemiel the First, based on a children’s folk tale by Nobelist Isaac Bashevis Singer, is being revived until 12/31 at NYU Skirball Center. Singer died before the musical’s first production in 1994, but he probably would have much preferred it to Barbra Streisand’s movie version of his ''Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, '' a “splashy production,” which he felt had “nothing but a commercial value.” Instead Shlemiel the First, elucidating down-to-earth Jewish wisdom simply, clearly, and humorously, is the story of a village simpleton who realizes that nobody’s all that brilliant. Hankus Netsky’s music—he also adapted and orchestrated it–isn’t pastiche; it has a heart that really does go “boom-boom-boom.” The actors, including Amy Warren, Michael Iannucci, Jeff Brooks, and Kristine Zbornik, with a fine company from National Yiddish Theatre—Folksbiene, in conjunction with Theatre for a New Audience, NYU Skirball Center, and Peak Performances at Montclair State University, deliver with vitality. And what’s not to love? The lyrics by the late Arnold Weinstein, who, with composer William Bolcom, wrote the operas McTeague, A View from the Bridge, and A Wedding among other theatre-opera pieces, are bursts of delight (you’ll ask yourself what Sondheim, who has recently commented on the works of wordsmiths, thinks):
In this little town of fools
We don’t need to follow rules
Men are smart like mules.
We’re talking Chelm.
We’re talking Chelm where dumb is smart
Where stupidity’s an art.
The foolishness that we impart
Sends our IQs off the chart.
We put the horse behind the cart.
We never meet until we part.
It’s time to start.
Brustein actually wondered if Weinstein was right for the job: “[He] was a highly cultivated Harvard poet with English-Jewish antecedents, and I wasn’t sure his Yiddishkeit was ripe enough to distill all the ethnic juices out of the piece. . . . [At] an audition [he married the word] ‘Rumania’ with a hundred other unexpected rhymes—including ‘I’ll explain ya’. . . . [He] not only proved the perfect lyricist for Shlemiel the First. He provided a great deal of its heart and its soul.”
David Gordon lovingly directs and choreographs; the tilted design of rust and blue is by Robert Israel; the roaring music direction is Zalmen Mlotek’s; the clever body suits are from Catherine Zuber. Step into the night after the show and you won’t hear angels singing—the warm, premodern wail of a clarinet, trombone, trumpet, yes! Let this confluence of holidays be the start of a new seasonal tradition.
© 2011 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Lyrics © by Arnold Weinstein. All rights reserved.
Press agent: Bruce Cohen/Bruce Cohen Group
Visit the Web site for NYU Skirball Center for ticket information: http://skirballcenter.nyu.edu/
In the imaginary town of Chelm, a village of fools, the naive beadle Shlemiel is sent on a pilgrimage to spread the wisdom of the local sages. His simple-minded folly turns an already absurd world hilariously — and redemptively — upside down. Half sad-sack clown and half accidental messiah, Shlemiel’s charm is in his childlike innocence; this production's charm is in its playfulness and unapologetic, unalloyed delight. With a cast of eight, a live klezmer band and topsy-turvy set, it gently mocks the lavishness of other musicals.
“In its artfulness and eloquence, Shlemiel The First is better by far than anything currently on Broadway.” John Lahr, The New Yorker
Shlemiel the First, a joyous klezmer musical, received rave reviews after premiering in 1994 at the American Repertory Theatre and went on to delight audiences nationwide. Peak Performances at Montclair State University produced Shlemiel in January, 2010 at The Alexander Kasser Theater.
Previous productions have also appeared at Philadelphia’s The American Music Theater Festival, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and Serious Fun! at Lincoln Center among other prestigious venues.
This will be the first New York revival of Shlemiel the First since Serious Fun!
An educational event will enhance the run of Shlemiel the First:
December 27 – A post-performance talkback with theatre critic, producer, playwright and educator, Robert Brustein who conceived and adapted Shlemiel the First from its source material. Jeffrey Horowitz will moderate.
BASED ON THE PLAY BY ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER
CONCEIVED AND ADAPTED BY ROBERT BRUSTEIN
LYRICS BY ARNOLD WEINSTEIN
COMPOSED, ADAPTED AND ORCHESTRATED BY HANKUS NETSKY
MUSICAL ARRANGEMENTS AND ADDITIONAL MUSIC BY ZALMEN MLOTEK
EDITORIAL SUPERVISION BY DAVID GORDON
MUSIC DIRECTION BY ZALMEN MLOTEK
DIRECTED AND CHOREOGRAPHED BY DAVID GORDON
PRESENTED BY THEATRE FOR A NEW AUDIENCE, NATIONAL YIDDISH THEATRE – FOLKSBIENE, NYU SKIRBALL CENTER, AND PEAK PERFORMANCES AT MONTCLAIR STATE UNIVERSITY