A Night in the Old Marketplace
A Night in the Old Marketplace kicks off with the most depressing opening number I've ever seen in a musical: "The Bottom of the Well," a dirge about a bride who throws herself down a well on her wedding day. After a downer of a beginning like that, you might think there's nowhere left to go but up ... but you would be wrong. A Night in the Old Marketplace takes an esteemed Yiddish play and adds some music, but the result is often confusing, distancing and plodding, and does little to make the play's intellectual pretensions accessible to a modern audience.
In a note in the playbill, director Alexandra Aron writes of her initial encounter with the script of I.L. Peretz's original play from 1906: "With hundreds of characters ... led by a mad Badkhn (wedding jester) who rails against God and man in a fevered dreamscape, this seemingly unproduceable vision in verse spoke to me like nothing I had ever read. I found profoundly comforting Peretz's contradictory impulses towards Jewish culture." Unfortunately, whatever power A Night ... may possess on paper disappears on the stage of the Prince Music Theater. Glen Berger's book for the musical cuts down the cast of characters, but leaves in the Badkhn's rants - and while his philosophical flights of fancy are often intriguing, they're just speeches, not scenes. There's nothing dramatic about this material.
Then there's the music. Although the klezmer-style score has an appealing sound - full of quirky, off-kilter rhythms and lovely melodies, and deftly played by an onstage five-piece band that includes an accordionist and a tuba player - the songs (lyrics by Berger, music by Frank London of the Klezmatics) often end abruptly just as they're starting to get interesting. On opening night, many of the songs were followed by three to five seconds of silence before applause began, as the audience tried to figure out if the songs were really over. If that's not a clear indication that the authors aren't getting through to their audience, I don't know what is.
After the unfortunate bride Sheyndele jumps down that well, the Badkhn (Ray Wills) appears and gives the audience a taste of what exactly a wedding jester does. In the delightful song "Mazel Tov," Wills dances around, tells corny jokes and improvises with members of the audience; it seems like we're about to see a charming and lively depiction of Eastern European shtetl culture. But then Nosn, Sheyndele's true love, and Itzhak, the merchant who stole her away, show up. Badkhn gets these two rivals to help him in his plan to take the gargoyle who hangs on a wall over the marketplace and somehow bring it to life. Badkhn's idea is to have the gargoyle summon the dead - not only bringing Sheyndele back to life, but also taking God's version of the world and turning it upside down. Badkhn wants to take the wine glass broken by the groom in a Jewish wedding ceremony and make "the broken glass mend." Symbolically, that is.
With me so far? Well, not even Badkhn's cohorts are with him. "In the morning, we'll wonder what the hell we were talking about," says Nosn; "Dammit, enough of these vaudevilles" says Itzhak after one dance number too many. Ignoring such sensible advice, Badkhn trudges on. It's fascinating to see Badkhn challenging society and religion - and it must have been startling in 1906 - but the lessons he learns don't seem especially profound today. It's a grim vision of the world, unleavened (so to speak) by much humor, although Wills does get a chance to strut his stuff on a good jazz/blues parody called "Forever Yours." Wills is an ingratiating presence throughout, and the supporting cast is excellent, especially soprano Charlotte Cohn, who gives a haunting performance as the gargoyle.
But director Aron's overly theatrical style does nothing to make the characters likable; she and her talented cast are unable to take this tale that wallows in death and bring it to life. The lack of a compelling storyline doesn't help. Neither, sad to say, does the music, which adds an authentic-sounding Jewish flavor, but with all the joy sucked out. In the end, A Night in the Marketplace seems like a big intellectual puzzle that isn't worth figuring out. What a shame.
A Night in the Old Marketplace runs through Sunday, October 21, 2007. Ticket prices range from $40 to $55, and may be purchased by calling the Prince Music Theater box office at 215-569-9700, in person at 1412 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, or online at www.princemusictheater.org.
A Night in the Old Marketplace