THE BASICS: The Jewish Repertory Theatre (Seller Theatre, 2640 North Forest Road, Williamsville) stages its first musical, a world premiere no less, weekends (but no Friday nights) through October 28th. Director Saul Elkin directs a cast of four (Lisa Ludwig, Mary Kate O’Connell, Tom Makar, David Marciniak). The show, with its single intermission, runs approximately 2 hours.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH (courtesy of the Broadway World website): “THE STRUDEL LADY (is) the story of Chava, an American-born, Jewish Orthodox wife and mother, who seeks to put her life back together when she is deserted by her husband and children. Embarrassed and confused about her identity and how to support herself financially, she seeks advice from a trusted older couple, who help her find independence, self-esteem and eventually love through her skill as a baker.”
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: The author, Shirl Solomon, appears to be a real Renaissance Woman. She is known primarily as a handwriting expert, and has written several popular books in this vein. She is a recognized artist, and also has a few plays to her credit. STRUDEL LADY is apparently semi-autobiographical, with the Velvel and Faiga characters (ie. the “trusted older couple”) based upon her Old World cantor father, and “modern”, managing, business-wise mother.
I went to the theatre hoping for a flavorful slice of Jewish Americana, such as CROSSING DELANCEY or HESTER STREET. Sadly, the onstage product is awkward, clunky, with dialogue used to often and too obviously to fill us in. Chava does have a nice character arc, but the plot is really very slim. And the score, also by Ms. Solomon (she is referenced once as the composer, although there is no specific credit given to her in the program) is considerably worse than the book. The songs are little lectures, with notably trite rhymes and precious little melodic hook. The best tune is attached to a number called: “A She Without a He Is Not a Woman”. This is not a satire, by the way; it’s presented as a life lesson from Chaiga to Chava! The “big” final number, “It Is Not a Sin To Show Affection” is another example of the supposed Orthodox mind-set to which we 21st century theatregoers are being asked to relate. It’s a pretty tall order!
How authentic are the various Orthodox elements of STRUDEL LADY? As a non-Orthodox Jew, I can’t be definitive, but I did find myself questioning things presented and not presented to us at various points. The opinion of a bona fide Orthodox Jew on this play would be very interesting; if you are that person, and you do go to see it, please add your thoughts to the “Comments” section!
The hand picked cast (not a Jew among them) is capable, somewhat convincing. But, as I always say, it’s better to BE Jewish than “DO” Jewish! This has been a problem at the JRT from day one, and it isn’t getting any better.
The score, such as it is, comes to us from a single keyboard, at the back of the empty looking stage. The good news is that the pianist (I suppose it’s the Musical Director), Joe Isgar, isn’t drowning anybody out. Some musical underscoring would have helped with the various “dead” spots. There is some simple choreography from Terri Filips Vaughn. The production values are adequate but not exceptional.
IN SUM: A feel good story that is surprisingly low on charm, and barely qualifies as a musical. Author/composer Solomon (whose name is misspelled on the adorable poster/program cover) must shoulder most of the blame. If you aren’t a subscriber, you may want to think twice about attending this one!
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!