note: entire contents copyright 2015 by Sheila Barth
Growing up in an ethnic neighborhood, I lived near synagogues and kosher shops, practicing everyday religious traditions. A steady stream of real-life Sholem Alecheim, Isaac Bashevis Singer relatives and landsmen visited us. They spoke Yiddish, read Yiddish newspapers, listened to Yiddish comedy and music records. We didn’t get to see New York’s renowned Yiddish theaters. We didn’t have to. They spoke animatedly, sang and danced with great joy and fervor, to lively, klezmer music.
Also, my family established the first synagogue in my hometown, Anshe Sfaard, or sons of the Sephardim. Who knew I had such noble roots, until I saw Robert Brustein’s one-act, klezmer musical, “King of Second Avenue”?
Like Brustein’s colorful characters, we had our share of schnorrers, or spongers, who shirked work but took advantage of others’ kind acts of charity. They even guilted their wealthier brethren out of substantial handouts and financial support.
Such deals you can’t imagine!
And that’s precisely what Brustein does in this world premiere of his musical, based on British-Jewish humorist-writer Israel Zangwill’s 1894 “The King of the Schnorrers,” which focused on London’s late 19th century Jews. Brustein changed the title of his play to “The King of Second Avenue,” updating it to the 1960s, and set it in Manhattan’s predominantly Jewish Lower East Side. He focused on former headlining, out-of-work actors during the decline and last gasp of Yiddish theater.
Such a cast and company Brustein amassed, with impressive credentials like you can’t even imagine. Led by Director Matthew “Motl” Didner, versatile, colorful actor Will LeBow exudes chutzpah and pride as out-of-work, fast-talking, wheeler-dealer Sephardic actor, Manasseh Da Costa, (based on Zangwill’s Manasseh Bueno Barzillai Azevedo DaCosta). He doesn’t have two dimes to rub together, but snubs his nose at Ashkenazi, or European Jews, calling them “the flotsam and jetsam of the Diaspora”. That includes Barney’s bag-toting, rich Hollywood producer, Joseph Lapidus, who hands out grab-bag money envelopes to the bevy of begging actors.
Portraying the well-heeled, easily fooled Lapidus, Jeremiah Kissel comically conveys his head-spinning frustration as Da Costa fleeces him out of his money, his clothes, and even the 3-lb. salmon Lapidus is buying for his family Purim feast. LeBow and Kissel are super together, especially in duets, “That’s A New One on Me,” “Sephardim,” and “The Endowment Song”. Also, petite star Kathy St. George is dynamic, with all the right moves, in her dual roles as a schnorrer-beggar, and Lapidus’ wife, Rosalie.
But Da Costa isn’t done, He makes sure Lapidus invites him, his zaftig, but desired daughter, Dolores, (Abby Goldfarb) and his friends to Lapidus’ Purim holiday family feast.
Maybe Lapidus’ schmendrick son, Joe Jr., (Alex Pollock) is all excited about the well-endowed Dolores, but his mother, Rosalie, isn’t so thrilled with her unexpected guests. Instead of giving her husband a loving peck on the cheek, she gives him potches (slaps) on his tush, reveling in “The Potch Song”. Rosalie also admits she loves her husband, despite his faults, in her solo, “True Love”. But she, too, becomes swayed by Da Costa’s silver-tongued compliments.
Between these slick-talking, fast-paced swindles, composer Netsky, Music Director-pianist David Sparr, the frenetic Conservatory Klezmer Band, and Merete Muenter’s lively choreography have theatergoers clapping to the beat and swaying, like they have shpilkes in their seats.
Although Da Costa doesn’t quite approve of his fellow schnorrer-actor, Schmuelly, as a suitor for the lovely Delores, he likes the divorced, 40-ish, poor actor - despite Schmuelly’s Ashkenazic roots - and pulls a few more capers on Lapidus to insure the couple’s economic future together. And we see why. Remo Airaldi as the lovable Schmuelly wins our hearts, too.
Ken Cheeseman rounds out the cast as a schnorrer-actor and Lapidus’ butler, Wilkinson.
BOX INFO:World premiere of Robert Brustein’s one-act klezmer musical, music by Hankus Netsky, appearing with New Repertory Theatre through March 1 at the Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Performances, Feb. 18,19, at 7:30 p.m.; Feb.20,27, at 8 p.m.; Feb. 26, at 2,7:30 p.m.; Feb. 21,28, at 3,8 p.m.; Feb. 22,March 1, at 2 p.m. Tickets, $30-$60; student, senior, group discounts. Call the Box Office at 617-923-8487 or visit newrep.org.