The single most clever, surprising thing about Picon Pie is its title. The well-meaning yet anemic new musical biography of stage and film star Molly Picon, which was written by Rose Leiman Goldemberg, just opened at the DR2 Theatre, and covers most of the familiar bases without treading much new ground.
Not that it needs to be particularly groundbreaking, as it's aimed squarely at those who might remember Picon from her numerous appearances on the New York stage in shows like Milk and Honey or in films like Come Blow Your Horn or Fiddler on the Roof. People with a particularly strong degree of familiarity and affection for the star might well enjoy the impersonation given here by Barbara Minkus. But, despite Minkus's great facility with the role and the charming grandmother-next-door quality she brings to her performance, this show might well try the patience of any but the most devoted Picon fans.
Goldemberg's writing for the show finds Picon at the end of her life looking back on her accomplishments and her 56-year marriage to Jacob Kalich (here usually referred to as Yonkel and played by Stuart Zagnit). The result is treacly and formulaic, too earnest in its ambitions to be legitimately boring, but never creative enough to be remotely exciting. While the story occasionally takes an unexpected twist (such as Picon worrying about the effect her always portraying young boys is having on her marriage, or her experiencing pre-World War II anti-Semitism while touring Europe), storywise Picon Pie is usually little more than a generic stage biography.
It does get a few much-needed shots in the arm from the handful of tunes (mostly in Yiddish) that Goldemberg has woven into the show. Songs like "Yiddle Mitn Fiddle," "Oy Mame Bin Ikh Farlibt," and "A Bis'l Liebe" give Minkus (and, to a much lesser extent, Zagnit) the opportunity to connect with the audience in a way that more effectively suggests Picon's talents and unique magnetism than the simple narration of her life's events that constitutes the rest of the show.
That Minkus, who stood by for Mimi Hines in the Broadway Funny Girl and starred opposite Tom Bosley in The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, sounds fantastic singing these songs, and displays a belt voice that has retained an arresting range, power, and clarity, is somewhat beside the point. She uses the songs to communicate much of what Goldemberg only touches on, and acts them so well that you don't need to know Yiddish to intimately understand what she's singing. A few interactions with the audience, including a sing-along or two, also aid Minkus's relationship with the audience.
If Zagnit's opportunities for acting and singing are few and far between, he does well by them when they do arrive. Accompaniment for the songs is provided by musical director Carl J. Danielsen on the piano and Margo Leverett on the clarinet, which lends much of the show a nicely evocative klezmer feel. The production's set, which partially recalls a vaudeville house (there's even a prop trunk upstage), was designed by Matthew Maraffi; the costumes and lighting are by Laura Frecon and Heather Layman. The direction, by Pamela Hall, is generally adequate, but lends few additional insights to the proceedings.
That's more the fault of the material, though, which is at its most complex when declaring the sound of applause was the driving force in Picon's life. That's the type of non-insight common in so many shows of this nature, but it seems most crippling in a play about a star of Picon's uniqueness. You can't help but wish Goldemberg had worked harder to distinguish Picon from the subject of every other show-biz bio-musical; much of what Picon was, a truly special star presence, is absent from this show.
Except, that is, when Minkus is allowed to take center stage and strut her still-considerable stuff. If tapping into the energy and magic that singing and dancing generate isn't enough to keep Picon Pie from going stale, it's at least enough to put a smile on your face and song in your heart for a couple of hours. Picon herself probably wouldn't have asked for much more.