Three New Manhattan Musicals: One Outstanding, One Okay, One Very Bad

07/13/2017 02:37 pm ET

As a follow-up to last year’s National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene hit, The Golden Bride, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, those industrious folks have revived and revised The Golden Land, first seen in 1982 and now as movingly, rousingly done as ever. If not more so.

This time called Amerike The Golden Land, it follows the progress of Jews stateside from the great end-of-the-19th-century migration to post-World War II, when Jews arrived not as a result of progroms but as Holocaust survivors.

In other words, the underlying message is that the more times change, the more in many ways they stay the same. Due to this awareness, the revue, obviously aimed at Jewish audiences (it’s sung mostly in Yiddish with English surtitles), is for everyone.

But at a time when President Trump’s travel ban is in effect, even if partially, The Golden Land has meaning for immigrants no matter from where they’ve traveled—when allowed to travel.

Another way of putting this is that at the moment Emma Lazarus’s welcoming poem at the Statue of Liberty base is in eclipse. To right that, the poem, set to music by Irving Berlin, is sung in English and Yiddish, and its “golden door” sentiment is projected in many languages.

Before the hour-and-a-half has elapsed, 12 excellent cast members, directed by Brynna Wasserman (with Merete Muenter covering movement), 41 songs by any number of songwriters float by. There’s much pertinent dialogue written by Moishe Rosenfeld and the always-expert music director Zalmen Mlotek.

As the best Manhattan musicals on view these days are listed, Amerike The Golden Land should—and will be—among them.

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When Julius Monk—the topical revue impresario whose Upstairs at the Downstairs and Plaza-9 editions were the town’s must-sees back in the day—stopped producing his annuals 40 years ago or so, he explained that television jumping on the latest satire-worthy current-events developments had preempted him. He simply couldn’t remain as up-to-date as the boob tube.

So imagine what bookwriter-lyricist Nancy Holson is going through while attempting to stay on top of the news for the Triad Theater Me the People The Trump America Musical! It’s difficult, if not impossible, to be up-to-the-minute about an administration where something horrific transpires every 60 seconds or less.

The 90-minute enterprise that Holson conceived with Jim Russek and director-choreographer Jay Falzone includes numbers trades on abiding Trump situations and disasters. Most of the passing time they’re mildly amusing as performed by Aiesha Alia Dukes, Mitchell Kawash, Richard Spitaletta and Mia Weinberger in a Gerard Alessandrini-like whirlwind. That, by the way, is despite some of them not being exactly close to pitch.

Often the standard melody Holson chooses for planting her gotcha words are clever—“Rockin’ Robin,” for instance, when she takes on the so-called prez’s compulsive tweeting.

The Paul Simon-At Garfunkel “Sound of Silence” is the under-pinning for her Fake News commentary. (James Higgins is the hard-working musical director and arranger.)

But audience members waiting to hear the most recent headlines mocked may not find what they’re after in a show that by now could be much changed from the one I saw. At that performance, the head honcho’s just concluded global-status-reducing European trip wasn’t brought up.

(Perhaps it was. Sometimes the singers race through the ripped-from-headlines lyrics so fast I may have missed references. I had to listen hard to hear Kellyanne Conway dropped. Did I miss any pointing at the likes of Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer?)

So now, has Holson yet slotted in anything about that rascal Donald Jr.’s email self-immolation. If not, she must be working feverishly.

Although Holson is fair enough on many Trump aspects, she often doesn’t rise too far above fair. Then there’s the late turn in which she has Weinberger as Hillary Clinton sing out the f-word several times and include at least one s**t word.

This is not satire. It’s degradation, which becomes a curtain-call singalong that has the effect of reducing the audience to Trump rally level. Remember how he induced his crowd to shout, “Lock her up.” There’s really no excuse for sinking to that level, and the song(?) weighs heavily on the entire affair.

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The New York Musical Festival is underway, and I made the mistake—about which I could have had no warning—of choosing to see My Dear Watson, called “A Sherlock Holmes Musical,” at the Peter Sharp Theater. The tuner has book, music and lyrics by Jami-Leigh Bartschi.

Apparently Bartschi, a longtime fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal detective, started working on this effort about nine years ago. In the near-decade, she’s come up with a plot involving a murder manipulated by Holmes’s arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty. She’s true enough to the Holmes-Moriarty history that they both perish at the Reichenbach Falls. Or do they?

It’s a shame to have to say that the nine working-on-it years haven’t been sufficient for Bartschi, not nearly sufficient. What should be elementary about crafting a musical hasn’t been made clear to Bartschi. She appears not even to have mastered the rudiments. Bartschi’s facility with scene structure eludes her. She has apparently heard that rhyme is often helpful, but she hasn’t mastered the art of using rhyme.

There’s little in the production worth recommending other than a few earnest performances from John Didonna as Holmes, Kyle Stone as Watson and Jason Blackwater as Moriarty. Those three do most of the singing—not terribly well.

The opening song, sung by Watson and then reprised by him in the second act, is called “Struggling to Survive.” That’s about right.

It’s with regret that I mention the My Dear Watson deficiencies raise a larger NYMF issue: When a property this poor shows up, that’s when a sincere, hopeful Festival attendee begins to question the selection process. In my case, it doesn’t begin to raise the issue. It’s raised once again.

Too many enterprises over the years have fallen below even adequate that it more and more becomes too likely that the musicals tapped are not strictly the high-quality entries but the ones with guaranteed money behind them. If that’s what’s at play, how soon will MYMF wear out its thinning welcome? For me, very soon.

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