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Bar Mitzvah Boy

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 12, 2018

Peyton Lusk, Julie Benko, and Tim Jerome
Photo by Ben Strothmann

Eliot Green, a Jewish kid on the cusp of manhood, is the central character of the slight but tuneful musical Bar Mitzvah Boy, and he has a serious case of cold feet. Runaway brides are fairly common figures in theatre and film, but it is not very often one comes across a runaway bar mitzvah boy. The amusing premise might not be a draw in itself to make a pilgrimage to the current production in the York Theatre Company's estimable Musicals in Mufti series, but musical theatre aficionados will no doubt kvell at the chance to see and hear a rarely performed Jule Styne musical.

Based on a television drama written by Jack Rosenthal, the musical tells the story of the Greens, a lower middle-class Jewish family in London's Willesden area. They are prepping for Eliot's (Peyton Lusk) bar mitzvah, and as the big day approaches, the worst qualities of each family member emerge. First, there's Eliot's cab-driver father Victor (Ned Eisenberg), who is self-centered and petulant. Next, his mother Rita (Lori Wilner) is an overbearing and guilt-tripping mother, and she obsesses over every detail, both those she can control and those she can't, of the event. Then there's Eliot's sister Lesley (Julie Benko), who is sardonic, and who bosses around her newest beau Harold (Ben Fankhauser), an obsequious but charming schlemiel. We also meet Eliot's rather clueless Granddad (Tim Jerome), who claims to be as happy as anyone who has ever lived could be.

At first Eliot's annoyances over his family's quirks and their obsession with the bar mitzvah minutiae are manifested in small acts of rebelliousness, such as his refusal to get a haircut. His discontent increases, and just as he is about to recite the first Hebrew blessing (which he can do—and does—upside down), Eliot bolts. As he tells his sister, he does not want to have anything to do with the hypocrisy of adulthood, but he gradually understands the importance of family no matter how irritating and unadult-like they are.

The musical, with songs by Jule Styne and Don Black and a book by Rosenthal, originally premiered in London in 1978. Clearly with intentions of a Broadway transfer, the show was directed on the West End by Martin Charnin and choreographed by Peter Gennaro, but the production closed after a disappointing 77 performances. New York's American Jewish Theater presented a revised version in 1987, and it had an adapted book by Martin Gottfried, who set the musical in Brooklyn just after World War II. David Thompson has rewritten the book (moving the characters and action back to the UK) and augmented the score (and swapped out a few songs) for this current version, which was first produced in London two years ago.

Lori Wilner, and Ben Fankhauser, Ned Eisenberg
Photo by Ben Strothmann

Regrettably, even in a stripped-down production with an excellent cast and wall-to-wall Jule Styne melodies, Bar Mitzvah Boy is paper-thin material and peopled with stock Jewish characters. While watching the show, my mind occasionally wandered to another bar-mitzvah-boy musical, William Finn and James Lapine's Falsettoland, which later became the second act of Falsettos. In that piece the Jewish kid has much stronger personal and existential reasons (in addition to the family exasperations) for not wanting to be bar mitzvahed. In comparison this musical seems hopelessly trite and naïve.

Of course, a primary reason for seeing the Mufti version is to experience the Styne score that will be unfamiliar to a large number of musical theatre fans (including this reviewer). This is not top-drawer Styne by any means, but there are some lovely musical moments in the show and make it well worth the visit. For instance, "You Wouldn't Be You," which Lesley sings to her dejected younger brother, is gently moving. "I've Just Begun," Eliot's song of resolve, recalls other Styne anthems of determination. It may lack the power of "I'm Going Back" from Bells Are Ringing, "Some People" from Gypsy, and "Don't Rain on My Parade" from Funny Girl, but it ends the show on a decidedly up-note. Also of interest in the score are the musical references, a first for Styne, to traditional Jewish and klezmer styles in numbers including "Hamakom," "Shabbat Prayer," and "Simcha."

Unfortunately, Black's lyrics are not generally up to Styne's melodies, and they do not help in developing the characters more fully. "Rita's Request," for instance, revolves around a central joke in which the overwrought Jewish mother asks her family to show her mercy and kill her. (William Finn created a similar but much funnier and more context-specific song in "I'm Breaking Down," which was interpolated into Falsettos.)

To a person the cast is completely winning. Lusk, who recently celebrated his real-life bar mitzvah and understudied the part of the bar-mitzvah boy Jason in the revival of Falsettos, is terrific as Eliot. He is likable even when he's bratty, and his voice shows tremendous maturity for a thirteen-year-old. As the parents, Wilner and Eisenberg spar with each other effectively, and there are moments of real tenderness between them. As the do-gooder Harold, Fankhauser is adorable, and Benko is the perfect combination of irksome and protective as the big sister. Tim Jerome, Neal Benari, and Casey Watkins round out the spot-on cast.

The Mufti staging does not make a compelling case for a full production of this musical, but Styne fans and musical theatre completists will surely make haste to the basement theatre in Saint Peter's Church to catch Bar Mitzvah Boy.

Bar Mitzvah Boy
Through February 18
York Theatre at St. Peter's Church, 619 Lexington Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix