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St. Louis by Richard Green

Shlemiel The First
New Jewish Theatre


(clockwise from center) Terry Meddows, Todd Schaefer and Antonio Rodriguez
I haven't seen Iron Man 3, but I'm pretty sure it's like the first two Iron Mans before it, and basically the same situation we have here: the producers go and round up as many outstanding actors as they possibly can, to breathe some life—and even a good amount of pleasure—into a flimsy comic book of a story.

The surprising thing is, at least in the case of Shlemiel The First, the plan works, at least half the time.

But if you see a lot of theater, I should warn you in advance: this script won't challenge you very much at all—except for your patience, maybe, here and there. The real challenge (and one that's met with astonishing skill and beauty) belongs to the singer/actor/dancers on stage who take a very tiny little story and make it, by turns, into grand opera, touching romance, and even bizarre musical comedy. It's a masterpiece of a make-over. I just don't want to be there if they ever unplug the life-support that's supplied by everyone on stage.

Some of the most interesting performers in town are pressed into the service of Arnold Weinstein and Hankus Netsy's musical version of Isaac Bashevis Singer's play, with the great Everyman Terry Meddows as the Shlemiel of the title. Edward Coffield directs and JT Ricroft arranges the dances, and between them (and the rest of the performers), the results (in the group numbers, especially) are frequently eye-popping.

Emily Baker is terrific and, as always, deserves close watching as Shlemiel's long-suffering wife. Taylor Pietz and Mike Dowdy are their two children—Mr. Dowdy supplying a huge amount of the comedy in the musical numbers, without ever seeming to break a sweat, and Ms. Pietz (apparently) working her cast-mates like dogs as the behind-the-scenes dance captain. And Todd Schaefer is tireless and true as the vainglorious leader of the village of Chelm.

Which leads us to Johanna Elkana-Hale as Mr. Schaefer's indomitable wife. And that's where the grand opera comes in—a pleasant but usually mundane score becomes a matter of earth-shaking comedic importance in Ms. Elkana-Hale's hands, and the lightest of entertainments suddenly towers over us like a delirious version of The Ride of the Valkyries. This happens twice in the 93 minute running time of this show.

But then—but then—we have to wait till almost exactly halfway through for Antonio Rodriguez's big solo number as Rascal, the man who blessedly turns the story upside-down. In the last few years he's been great as the leads in Tommy and Urinetown, but here he's just shuffled in with all the other four-or-five-star talents like it's no big deal. In fact, it's a scandal, but also another very lucky bit of casting for the play.

If you're new in town, or don't get out much, it's a perfect introduction to some great talent, showcased with a terrific set and band. And choreographer Ricroft has never created such dazzling work as we see here. But the story? Just a step above last year's phone book.

Through June 9, 2013, at the New Jewish Theatre, in the Jewish Community Center, on Scheutz Road just west of Lindbergh Blvd. For more information go to www.newjewishtheatre.org.

Cast
Shlemiel: Terry Meddows*
Mrs. Shlemiel: Emily Baker
Gronom Ox: Todd Schaefer
Yenta Pesha: Johanna Elkana-Hale
Gittel, other citizens of Chelm: Taylor Pietz
Mottel, Sender, other citizens of Chelm: Mike Dowdy
Tippish, Rascal, other citizens of Chelm: Antonio Rodriguez
Zeinvel, Dopey, other citizens of Chelm: Anna Skidis
Mendel, Moishe, other citizens of Chelm: Keith Thompson

Production Staff
Director: Edward Coffield
Music Director: Henry Palkes
Choreographer: JT Ricroft
Stage Manager: Kate Koch*
Scenic Designers: Margery and Peter Spack
Lighting Designer: Kimberly Klearman
Costume Designer: Michele Friedman Siler
Properties Designer: Alan Grell
Technical Director: Jerry Russo
Scenic Artist: Cristie Johnson
Master Electrician: Nathan Schroeder
Assistant Director: Michael Fling
Assistant Stage Manager: Erica Rogers
Dance Captain: Taylor Pietz
Wardrobe Assistant/Stitcher: Becky Fortner
Wardrobe (Special Crafts): John Inchiostro
Wardrobe (Embroidery): Kim Carlson

* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association

Musicians
Keyboard: Henry Palkes
Violin: Alyssa Avery
Clarinet: Dana Hotle
Bass: Adam Anello


Photo: John Lamb


-- Richard T. Green

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