Bookends: Intriguing New Musical Disappoints in NJ Rep Premiere
Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern were both from the borough of the Bronx. Born into cultured German Jewish families early in the twentieth century, it was expected that they would marry well and devote themselves to being devoted and supportive wives and mothers. Both quest for knowledge and learning. They are uncomfortable with the values of their peers (the vamp Lucy sings "I'll never lose a game of jacks / To anyone but darling Max"; homebody Dot sings "I'm engaged to be married and that is just fine/ Sol is no beauty, but at least Sol is mine"). They faced condescension from their teachers. Leona and Mady meet while teaching Hebrew School during their college years. Thereafter, as their friendship grew, the more stalwart (and three year older) Leona guided Mady into the world of old books.
While working on her PhD thesis, the intrepid Leona traveled to (Nazi occupied) Strasbourg to view rare 16th century books. These books brought forth evidence that supported her theory that publishers of that era, rather than being mere printers, were committed promulgators of the ideas of the Renaissance. Madeleine uncovered the fact that before the success of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott employed the pseudonym A. M. Barnard to write lurid, smutty serial thrillers to earn needed money for her family. I believe that Leona actually was in Strasbourg just before the Nazi occupation, and, though Madeleine is the Alcott scholar, it was Leona who actually discovered Alcott's pseudonym.
In 1945, Leona, who had been in the employ of another book dealer, opened her own business with Madeleine's financial aid. In short order, Madeleine became Leona's business partner. They then lived together (platonically) in Manhattan and remained business partners for almost 60 years, that is until Leona died at the age of 95.
Among several books that Leona and Madeleine wrote either separately or together, are two joint autobiographies. At the end of the musical Bookends, Deborah, a young agent from Simon and Schuster, comes to meet Leona and Madeleine about selecting a cover photograph for their autobiography. When Deborah shows that she is a kindred spirit with our now octogenarian duo, the elderly, tired Leona is rejuvenated. She gives Deborah her most treasured antiquarian book and prepares to pass on her expertise to her.
At this time Bookends should be regarded a work in progress. Authors Katharine Houghton (book and lyrics) and the husband and wife team of Dianne Adams and James McDowell (music and lyrics) have much work to do if their laudable project is to become successful.
There is a jarring inconsistency of style throughout the proceedings. Although the essential story and the scenes which convey it are old fashioned, the writers aspire to create a fluid, more adventuresome structure. At the beginning, we see the octogenarian authors as they pose for the cover photos for their biography. The story then goes back and forth in time, and scenes that are contemporary are performed simultaneously with those that occurred a half century earlier. At the end of the first act, the fiery 30-year-old Leona is off to Strasbourg to begin her rare book sleuthing while her tired more than 90-year-old self is off to withdraw from further pursuits.
Illustrating the conflicts among Leona and Madeleine and the oppressive males who denigrate their efforts, there are what appear meant to be Weill-Brechtian musical numbers. For example, when Madeleine is reviled for wanting to write a master's thesis on Mary Magdalene, we get "Mary Magdalene's Blues (Who Am I?)," a duet for Mary Saint and Mary Tart. This is followed by "Arab Astrologers" parodying her male chauvinist thesis advisors.
These attempts at modernism lack weight and, more than anything else, resemble old fashioned musical comedy specialty numbers. By the way, the best and liveliest of them is "Holmes and Watson" in which "Detectives" refer to the exploits of Laura and Madeleine. The Strasbourg librarian who assists Leona on her trip there (and is turned on by her) is too broadly and comically written to fit comfortably into a seriously intended musical. Most deadening are repetitive scenes of courtship involving our heroines and their beaus. These scenes continue to crop up throughout the course of both acts. Someone seems to have forgotten that, from the opening tableau, viewers know that the love that Leona and Madeleine have for each other and their books is the only romance that is going to blossom here.
The lyrics tend to the mundane. When courting Madeleine, Leona's brother Rusty sings: "when the world gets weary/ when the world gets tense/ when the words don't add up/ numbers make sense." On the other hand, there are some tuneful melodies here. I was particularly fond of a bit of ragtime music early in the first act which helped establish the era of the action. Although lively and well sung by Pamela Bob, Deborah's "There's Nothing New Under the Sun" is too much of a big belt, eleven o'clock number to fit comfortably with the rest of the material.
Director Ken Jenkins always keeps the simultaneous and overlapping threads of the story clear and he has elicited solid performances from his cast. Thirteen actors play about three dozen roles. There are two actresses for each of the two leading roles. Jenny Vallancourt shows us the growing intensity and enthusiasm of Young Leona, while Susan G. Bob is poignant as this lion in winter. Robyn Kemp and Kathleen Goldpaugh are perfectly matched as the appealing Young Mady and Madeleine, who is always there for Leona even as she pursues her own scholarly interests. Lending strong support in the roles of their suitors are Eric Collins (Karl) and Matt Golden (Rusty). Amie Bermowitz and Pamela Bob take full advantage of their moments in the spotlight.
Ultimately, the most important failure of Bookends is its inability to rekindle the emotions that bound Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern to one another. The feelings that existed between them, whatever they may have been, are not conveyed in this dramatization. As a result, our emotions are not engaged, and we are left on the outside looking in.
Bookends continues performances (Eves: Thurs-Sat. 8 p.m. / Sun. 7 PM; Mats: Sat 3 p.m./ Sun 2 p.m.) through August 26, 2007 at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ 07740. Box Office: 732-229-3166; online www.njrep.org.
Bookends Book and Lyrics by Katharine Houghton/Music and Lyrics by Dianne Adams and James McDowell; directed by Ken Jenkins