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The Prince of Grand Street

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Bob Merrill's 1978 musical The Prince of Grand Street shuttered in Philadelphia, and was never seen in New York - until now. Barry Kleinbort has adapted and directed the musical into a limited-run concert production for the Jewish Repertory Theatre with, as might be expected, mixed results. Musical theatre devotees should rush to see it now; when are you likely to get another chance?

Some purists may object to Kleinbort's version of The Prince of Grand Street; his exhaustive reconstruction of the show finds a number of scenes revised and other new ones written from scratch, with at least one song gone and others rearranged. As he describes in his program notes, the show never had the chance to find its final form, so much of it was fair game. The result is a lively one, where the elements that so obviously contributed to the original production's failure are more than counterbalanced by the pleasures on offer.

Chief among these is one power-packing performance. No, it's not given by Mike Burstyn, though his work in the lead role of Nathan Rashumsky (originated by Robert Preston) is strong; he mines a lot of laughs and quite a bit of heart out of the Yiddish theatre superstar who womanizes, turns dramatic stories into musical comedy extravaganzas, and tends to play roles a few decades younger than his actual age.

It's Brooke Sunny Moriber who should have everyone talking. A dependable stalwart in the New York musical scene for a few years now, she really comes into her own here as a ravishing star with a paint-peeling belt. She beautifully captures the soul of a woman who must spend most of her life in the wings, and makes good songs with predictable titles like "A Girl with Too Much Heart" or "What Do I Do Now?" sound not only great but emotionally incisive. Bring a sweater for the offstage ballad ("My Place in the World") she sings the second act - it's chill-inducing in all the best ways.

Book-wise, the show is at its best during the onstage sequences that find Nathan truly in his element; the Yiddish musical adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, The Sailor of Sebastapol, Young Avram Lincoln, or Huckleberry Finn offer some uproarious musical comedy moments. They don't detract, though, from some of the show's central problems: an often meandering conceptual idea (the battle of traditions with the Yiddish theatre as a backdrop) with little real plot and a central character who, until late in the show, is difficult to like or sympathize with.

Merrill's songs manage to smooth over some of these problems, with the Yiddish-tinged score full of surprises, whether bouncy in the title tune, ingratiating in "Do I Make You Happy?" for Nathan, Leah, and the folk of Atlantic City, or in traditional Broadway showstopper style for "The Youngest Person that I Know." The latter also demonstrates Kleinbort's cleverness at working around the "staged reading" barrier with regards to choreography; instead of dancing, the cast just gathers around energetic musical director Christopher Denny at the piano and lets him cook.

Otherwise, the show is seldom short of bubbling and brewing, though its aroma promises something the taste itself never quite delivers, and, despite Kleinbort's hard work, probably never will; while there's much in the show that's good, The Prince of Grand Street is not exactly a lost classic. Still, despite some remaining roughness in the first act, the show as a whole celebrates not only the estimable talents of Merrill, but the musical comedy genre itself in all (or at least most) of its glory.

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Jewish Repertory Theatre
The Prince of Grand Street
Sunday, June 1 at 3 PM and 7 PM, and Monday June 2 at 2 PM
Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street
Tickets: 917.606.8200