Park Theatre – until 8 February 2020
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
The experiences of Jewish immigrants in New York take centre stage in this schmaltzy but charming show. Despite the stellar creative team of Joseph Stein, Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz, the 1986 Broadway production closed after only 4 days. Stein’s vision of telling the stories of the Jewish people who had fled the pogroms for a new life in the new world is brought together by David Thompson’s revised book, but never reaches the soaring emotional heights of Fiddler on the Roof, even with the powerhouse performance of Carolyn Maitland as Rebecca. Perhaps in trying to capture the spirit of the different musical styles in 1910 New York, the musical never quite finds cohesion.
After fleeing the Cossacks who killed her husband, Rebecca and her son David arrive penniless in New York. Taken in by Bella, a young girl they met on the ship to America, Rebecca’s sewing skills are recognised by Bella’s uncle Jack – a tailor doing piecework for factory owner Bronfman. With six people living in a tiny tenement, the clashes between the old ways and the new propel most of the first act. Rebecca’s ambition sees her entering into an unequal partnership with Bronfman, but as she becomes more successful, the factory workers are so desperate that they begin a strike, led by firebrand Italian neighbour Sal. The eventual choice she makes between the two men is not a surprise, as Sal (Alex Gibson-Giorgio) has all the man-of-the-people heroic numbers and Bronfman is dressed like a silent movie villain (Sam Attwater) must make do with much more forgettable songs. Dave Willetts is full of gravitas and despair as Bella’s father Avram, with his scenes with hopeful widower Rachel (the hilariously dour Rachel Izen) a highlight of the show, but even this can’t save the story from drowning under a sea of clichés.
Director Bronagh Lagan keeps the episodic plot ticking along nicely with the 4-piece klezmer band smoothing out the scene changes nicely. The actor musicians make the most of their moment in the spotlight with their Yiddish Theatre production of Hamlet bringing the biggest laughs of the night.
The huge pile of suitcases in the Ellis Island museum is referenced in the set design with stacks of suitcases representing the skyline and tenement buildings of New York, but the piles of belongings seen in Holocaust memorials are never far from your mind, especially as the prejudice against and exploitation of the hopeful immigrants is a recurring musical theme.
A fine cast and a few memorable songs ensure a lively and entertaining production, but the production has more of a difficult second album feel than a successful “sequel” to Fiddler.