Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Isaac Bashevis Singer originally wrote this tale as a short story of an intellectual girl in Eastern Europe choosing to live as a man, exploring the endless complexities and debates surrounding the Talmud (which, needless to say, was forbidden to women). Yentl also has a compelling romantic subplot, and perhaps that led Barbra Streisand to star, direct, and produce the 1983 film. Described as a romantic drama, that movie was set in a sepia-colored, candle-lit Poland of 1873.
But this update of Leah Napolin's 1975 play is bright and jaunty, and only occasionally dramaticthough when it is, it's unexpectedly powerful. Overall, the music and all the delightful characters work to re-balance the story in the direction of tuneful, storybook comedy, like Disney's Beauty And The Beast. Except here, there are no dancing menorahs in sight. It's quite different from the Streisand movie and also, generally, a pleasure to watch.
Perfectly holding the whole thing together is Shanara Gabrielle, a Yentl with an iron will to pursue her dream, and one who's beautifully, quietly miserable over the compromises she has to make. Gradually, Ms. Gabrielle's performance becomes the stuff of legends.
Andrew Michael Neiman plays Avigdor, her very close friend in Yeshiva, as they study the Talmud together. And though they never quite admit it out loud, they fall desperately in love, arguing over the meaning of the great scroll and the stories beginning with Adam and Eve. The sexual tension here, and elsewhere, is like heading into the first big dive on a rollercoaster.
Mr. Neiman, off-stage, is endlessly bright, charming and playful. But if you'd only followed his career on-stage, you might never know it till now. He often gets roles that are far more serious than his disposition. And finally in this Avigdor we get the full measure of both the actor and the character. So there actually is at least one happy marriage here, after all, though it may only be that of an actor and his role.
Ms. Gabrielle and Mr. Neiman would be enough on their own for a fine, fraught love story, but Isaac Bashevis Singer has thrown in the village's beautiful rich girl to make things almost excruciatingly interesting. The resulting love triangle keeps us cringing throughout, on the brink of disaster. Taylor Steward plays Hadass, a blonde who's genuinely beautiful inside and out. And it's not long before she's devoted to the wrong manor, in this case, the wrong woman, dressed as the right man. Thanks to great casting, this often lighthearted triangle also comes with many painful tangents.
Perhaps a third of the songs are sub-par, but these highly talented and intelligent performers never give up, making them all seem joyful and spontaneous, though the sadder numbers (sung by Ms. Gabrielle) go over best. At the outset, after the first jarring experience with unexpected do-wop stylings, we can at least enjoy some fantastic vocal harmonies from the male chorus. You might cringe for legal reasons later on, when the big wedding song "My Sister, My Bride" veers melodically into Fiddler On The Roof's "To Life" again and again. Then there's a dubious sight-gag elsewhere, also involving that same Broadway classic.
Fortunately, the strong source material for Yentl, and the work of all involved in this excellent staging, allows it to stand on its own. It's a triumph of production over material, in which an "updated" and often clamoring, insecure score threatens (but fails) to undermine the whole thing.
Through June 5, 2016, at the Jewish Community Center, #2 Millstone Campus Dr., located along Scheutz Rd., a block west of Lindbergh. For more information visit www.newjewishtheatre.org
* Denotes member, Actors' Equity Association, the professional union of actors and stage managers in the US.