The Great Ostrovsky
Also see Warren's review of Tooth and Claw
What is it about Philadelphia and musicals about egocentric Yiddish theater stars? Over 25 years ago, Bob Merrill opened and closed his last Broadway-bound musical, The Prince of Grand Street, at the Forrest Theater. Based on the life of Boris Thomashevsky, Merrill's musical, which starred Robert Preston in his last stage role, followed the life of Nathan Rashumsky, an Yiddish actor with a penchant for playing leading roles that were not appropriate for the aging star and who marries a woman young enough to be his daughter.
Now the Prince Music Theater is trying its own hand at a Thomashevsky-inspired musical entitled The Great Ostrovsky, by Broadway great Cy Coleman. Though not perfect and suffering from a weak and flimsy book, there's still much to admire in this often enjoyable musical by one of the theater's most respected and talented composers.
Given the musical mediocrity currently plaguing Broadway, Coleman's score is a real winner. The music is tuneful and infectious, often evocative of Coleman's earlier hit Barnum, another show about a larger-than-life character. Coleman and book writer Avery Corman's lyrics also rise to the occasion with wit and intelligence that frequently evoke laughs. Orchestrated with a klezmer feel by the notable Jonathan Tunick, The Great Ostrovsky is good old-fashioned Broadway razzmatazz. If it's one of the more traditional productions that the Prince has produced in recent years, that's not necessarily a bad thing, proving that the American musical is still alive and kicking, if in need of some nips and tucks.
The Great Ostrovsky centers on David Ostrovsky (Bob Gunton), a vainglorious egocentric star of the Yiddish stage who manages to give every play he produces a happy ending, all while casting himself as the young male lead. Ostrovsky's brilliance on stage is only matched by his virility off stage where he woos the female members of his company. Enter Jenny (Rachel Ulanet), a young woman from Eastern Europe who claims to be David's long-lost cousin and has come looking for a job. Ostrovsky falls in love with Jenny and convinces her to go with him on a romantic trip to Lakewood, New Jersey (set up by the wonderful song "Have You Ever Been to Lakewood?"). Jenny, however, becomes involved with the Socialist Party and falls for Socialist theater critic B.D. Kotlow (Jeff Edgerton), who passionately dislikes Ostrovsky's work.
Meanwhile, Ostrovsky is being forced off the stage by theater manager Epstein (Jonathan Hadary) and theater owner Pincus (Paul Kandel) who are tired of Ostrovsky's schmaltzy musical shows with their high expenses. Though Ostrovsky goes into temporary retirement as a farmer in the country, he longs to return to the stage. With encouragement from his sister Rose (Louise Pitre), Ostrovsky makes a comeback in a production of The Jewish King Lear, in which he reveals that he is capable of performing great and serious theater.
Hands down, The Great Ostrovsky's strongest element is its score. Though some numbers in the show are more engaging than others, overall it's a polished work. The opening number "It's Great to Be Alive," is particularly outstanding as the cast, who are putting on a musical version of Ansky's classic play The Dybbuk, hilariously sing of the pleasures of bodily resurrection alongside the glory of working in the Yiddish theater. This number best captures one of the show's major themes, namely that the Yiddish theater was intrinsic to the assimilation of Jewish immigrants, providing them not only with entertainment, but also with lessons about how to survive in America.
Though the score carries much of the show, The Great Ostrovsky sadly suffers from the same problem that troubled Merrill's The Prince of Grand Street, namely the lack of a single central conflict to propel the plot along. What is the principal issue at stake here? Is it Ostrovsky's conflict over producing theater that gives his audiences a happy ending vs. that which is faithful to the original text? Is it his insatiable desire for women? Or, is it, in what seems like a totally gratuitous plot line, a question of socialist vs. capitalist politics? The result is a show that, while often entertaining in the moment (a fact helped by director Douglas Wager's quick pacing), often loses focus and never coalesces into a meaningful whole. Though there is a rivalry between the two romantic leads Ostrovsky and Kotlow, little effort is ever made to emphasize the fact that though they disagree ideologically about theater, they both love the same woman, Jenny.
Despite this structural issue, the high level of talent involved in the show makes the musical worth seeing. Gunton is a strong Ostrovsky, and if he isn't quite as large-as-life as is necessary for the role, he still commandeers what is essentially a star vehicle. Rachel Ulanet's Jenny is winning, funny, and vibrant, evoking a young Barbra Streisand, particularly in her tongue-twisting number "Digga-Digga-Di." Jonathan Hadary makes a welcome addition as the unctuous manager Epstein who is given a delightful vaudeville turn with Paul Kandel as Pincus in the eponymous song "Pincus & Epstein." Kirsten Wyatt is a hoot as Pincus's untalented daughter, Minna, who due to nepotism is repeatedly given starring roles in Ostrovsky's productions. Her squeaky voice and egregious overacting are a riot whenever she graces the stage. Strangely, one of the show's highest profile stars, Mamma Mia!'s Tony-nominated Louise Pitre in the role of Rose, Ostrovsky's sister, is sorely underutilized. Relegated to a handful of speaking lines and two unmemorable songs, Pitre's character either needs to be expanded or cut altogether.
A new Cy Coleman show is always an occasion and if this one doesn't quite deliver all the goods, it's still a worthy effort. Whether the show has a future remains to be seen, but if Corman and Coleman make some changes and play their cards right, they might have a hit worthy of The Great Ostrovsky himself.
The Great Ostrovsky runs through March 28. Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Prince Music Theatre, 1412 Chestnut St. Philadelphia, PA Schedule and Tickets: 215-569-9700 or visit www.princemusictheater.org.