According to the program for A Stoop on Orchard Street, Jay Kholos was inspired to write the musical after visiting the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. The book, music, and lyrics all support this, as the show - which is set in and around the Orchard Street apartments the Tenement Museum has preserved - has a feeling of being not quite as good as they are good for you.
A Stoop on Orchard Street, while far too gentle to be placed along similar shows like Ragtime, Rags, or Fiddler on the Roof, often feels right at home where it's landed in the Mazer Theater. If sometimes staidly educational in its outlook and execution, the show is inherently intriguing and moving by benefit of its venue, in an area central to the lives of the early 20th century immigrants it documents. That authenticity would be hard to match elsewhere.
It stretches even so far as the set, designed by Jason Lee Courson, which replicates both the fašade of the Tenement Museum apartments and one's interior. But while the stoop portion of the set is central to the design and the show's theme (inspiring its title, of course), the scenes taking place there are surprisingly uneven; Kholos's focusing on the smaller stories of the people of Orchard Street are what give the show its warm, winning glow.
The story of the Lomansky Family is viewed through the eyes of Benny, the youngest member, both young (Joseph Spiotta) and old (Lon Gary, also the show's director). As the Lomanskys try to justify their place in the world, Benny watches his father (David Mendell) crack under the strain of poverty as he works 14-hour days for little money, his mother (Eleni Delopoulos) bear the burden of the family's financial obligations responsibility when his father bows out, and his uncle (John Kirkwood) pine for the woman he had to leave home in Russia.
The archetypal depictions of some of Benny's neighbors - an anti-immigrant cop, an enterprising fruit cart vendor, a gossipy woman whose window overlooks the stoop, and so on - robs A Stoop on Orchard Street of some of its potential power. The score doesn't always help, either, determined to cover much of the same familiar ground, at least in the first act. That's when, in a flurry of exposition, the residents of Orchard Street all sing about their "Melting Pot," Benny's father sings of his hopes for fulfillment in "More to Me," the battered mother cries out for "Human Kindness," and so on.
Kholos's work is much better when it's more detailed, such as in "Sarah," when Simon and his love (Sarah Matteucci) long for each other in writing, or when the men join together in a hymn to the benefits and detriments of name changing, in the first act's raucous "Lipschitz," or in the unusual consideration of a tiny step on the road to success in America lying "Across the Brooklyn Bridge." There's even a bona fide comic showstopper when Benny's grandmother (Anne Tonelson) leads the older women of Orchard Street in a tribute to "The Bubbies" who hold family life together, complaining all the way to - and even from - the grave.
As that song demonstrates, A Stoop on Orchard Street is best when it frees itself from traditional conventions and generalities. All of the performers are fine but unexceptional when given fine but unexceptional material, though they shine when they're allowed to be more specific. Matteucci is heartbreaking in her scenes on Ellis Island, Delopoulos's resolve and tentative emotions toward the fashion designer (the fine Scott Steven) with whom she begins a professional relationship are elegantly depicted, and Deborah Grausman, as Benny's sister, gets a delightful moment expounding on how even a new dress can improve one's outlook.
But when so much of the show - even down to the choreography (Tom Berger and Jason Summers) and costumes and lighting (Courson and Sabrina McGuigan) - is run-of-the-mill, these brighter moments tend to get lost, and A Stoop on Orchard Street gets enough right that it deserves better. Like the proud, dedicated people it's about, the show wants and needs to stand out from the crowd, something that, judging by what's on display now, is eminently achievable.
A Stoop on Orchard Street