Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

The King of Second Avenue
New Repertory Theatre


Will LeBow and Jeremiah Kissel
It isn't often that we get to experience a world premiere musical on a local stage, let alone a Klezmer musical at that. Add in the fact that it is homegrown, the result of a long collaboration between two Boston area theater artists, and New Repertory Theatre has scored a coup with The King of Second Avenue. Robert Brustein, founder of the Yale Repertory Theatre and American Repertory Theater, wrote the book and lyrics, and the music is by Hankus Netsky, chair of New England Conservatory's Contemporary Improvisation Department and founder and director of the Klezmer Conservatory Band. Making his New Rep debut as director is Matthew 'Motl' Didner, Associate Artistic Director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in New York City.

Based on the 1893 novel "The King of Schnorrers" by Israel Zangwill, The King of Second Avenue is both updated and relocated from nineteenth century London to New York's Second Avenue in the mid-1960s. Pitting antagonistic Jewish sects against each other, it might be subtitled "East Side Story," only with a comedic foundation. An out-of-work Sephardic actor named Da Costa (Will LeBow) and his band of merry schnorrers (Remo Airaldi, Ken Cheeseman, Alex Pollock, Kathy St. George) match wits with movie magnate Joseph E. Lapidus (Jeremiah Kissel), a wealthy Ashkenazi, in a convoluted scheme to get him to endow a nonprofit organization to support Jewish intermarriage (in this case, between sects, not outside of the religion). Da Costa's lovely daughter Dolores (Abby Goldfarb) is the sought-after bride who gets to choose between the boorish Lapidus scion Joe, Jr. (Pollock) and her true love Schmuelly (Airaldi), a member of her father's downtrodden troupe. Not unexpectedly, complications ensue.

Brustein's book is a Valentine to the Yiddish theater tradition, Vaudeville and its descendants, with more shtick than you can shake a stick at, and has as much heart as it has humor. The characters break into song at the drop of a top hat and cane, and it is a revelation how well some of these actors can sing. You know what you're going to get with the likes of Airaldi and St. George (who, by the way, really heats up the room with her torch song "True Love"), but Kissel and LeBow acquit themselves quite well, and Goldfarb is a found songbird. She also displays solid comedy chops with a hint of early Streisand/Fanny Brice, making a strong impression with a modicum of stage time.

Didner's direction allows the cast to play it fast and loose, garnering a high rate of l.p.m. (laughs per minute). There aren't any really big jokes, but a steady stream of comedy that combines the physical and the verbal. Even when things are repeated, they're still funny; e.g., the collective spit take every time someone mentions Haman (the villain of the Purim spiel), or LeBow's delivery of the start of an-oft used line, "What do you take me for ...?" that ends with a myriad of silly similes. Along with Kissel, the pair of pros plays off each other with great timing, a lot of mugging, and perhaps a bit of ad libbing. Although Da Costa and Lapidus are natural foes because of their origins and economic circumstances, LeBow and Kissel give credibility to the grudging respect bordering on affinity that develops between them.

The quartet of schnorrers (defined as something between a beggar and a con artist) serves as Greek (Yiddish?) chorus (they even don masks to act out the Purim spiel), and each of the actors slips in and out of the group to portray another character. Cheeseman is the butler for the Lapidus family, looking alternately disinterested or disgusted; Pollock gives a Harpo Marx leering quality to young Joe; St. George plays Rosalie Lapidus as a diminutive balabusta who leaves no doubt about who wears the pants in the family; and Airaldi's Schmuelly is both shrewd and sweet.

Musical director/pianist David Sparr and three musicians (Zoe Christiansen, Liam Sheehy, Grant Smith) are seated in a downstage corner wearing similar ragtag costumes as the schnorrers. Their lively play on about a dozen and a half songs makes them very much a part of the goings-on. The lyrics provide pertinent background on the characters while the klezmer music propels the story onward. Jon Savage's simple set is highlighted by a black and white rendering of a tenement building on an upstage wall, with panels that open and rotate to reveal market stalls or curtained windows in the Lapidus apartment overlooking Central Park. Costume designer Frances McSherry shows some styling flair on Dolores' flamenco dress, Da Costa's kaftan, and the well-tailored three-piece suit worn by Lapidus.

The King of Second Avenue is light-hearted, sentimental, and entertaining. While it might benefit from further penetrating the influence of Yiddish theater, its evocation of Marx Brothers-like sensibility and array of delightful klezmer musical numbers mark it as a unique attempt to bring something fresh and new to its audience. Brustein, Netsky and company should be kvelling.

The King of Second Avenue, performances through March 1, 2015, at New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA; Box Office 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org.

Book and Lyrics by Robert Brustein, Music by Hankus Netsky, Based on the 1893 novel The King of Schnorrers by Israel Zangwill; Director, Matthew 'Motl' Didner; Choreographer & Assistant Director, Merete Muenter; Musical Director, David Sparr; Scenic Designer, Jon Savage; Costume Designer, Frances McSherry; Lighting Designer, Natalie Robin; Sound Designer, Mike Stanton; Stage Manager, Anna Burnham

Cast (in alphabetical order): Remo Airaldi, Ken Cheeseman, Abby Goldfarb, Jeremiah Kissel, Will LeBow, Alex Pollock, Kathy St. George


Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

- Nancy Grossman




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