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The final moments of the 1997-98 season's opening performance at the American Repertory Theater find an entire cast and orchestra of a musical in a unified and resounding chorus. With actors half in two costumes, a clarinet player nearly leaping off the stage and an energy that defies all known limits of family gatherings, it is a shame that such intensity is wasted on the absurd and over-the-top musical "Shlemiel the First."
Though the entire company of 'Shlemiel' devotes every ounce of enthusiasm during the two hours for which the musical stretches, the play itself falls short of the strength and depth the individuals offer. The adaptation is as uninspired as it is silly, and the an absurdity does little to compensate for the lack of substance.
"Shlemiel the First" is the tale of a dim-witted beadle who is recruited by his town's wise men to spread the teachings of the almost as dim-witted sage, Gronam Ox (Charles Levin). The foolish sages, (or sage fools) persuade the poor man and his dreidel to travel the world for three years "and a Wednesday," hoping that his missionary trip will bring fame and recognition to their home town, Chelm. After much hemming and hawing, Shlemiel's wife and family permit him to set out on his journey, but the man never gets very far out of Chelm. On the first night he sets out, a rascal (Benjamin Evett) deceives him into going back towards his home town, in the process convincing him that there are two Chelms. Returning to the town, Shlemiel and the rest of the inhabitants wait for his doppelganger to arrive from the second Chelm, the poor man must deal with his children (who aren't his children) and prevent temptation from the woman who resembles in every way but is not his wife.
The musical was adapted by ART artistic director Robert Brustein from a children's story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. But the adaptation is neither sharp nor captivating-instead it relies heavily on slapstick gags and cheap one-line jokes to drag its way through a simple story. Singer's morality tale here is not expanded or satirized; rather, it is presented and left to lie like cold chicken soup, sans matzoh balls, vegetables or even chicken. The adaptation fails to challenge the audience in the slightest, and is not even successful in its irreverence. Much of 'Shlemiel' simply insults both the audience and the material, dumbing down the satire and accenting the novelty in the concept of a quasi-Yiddish musical.
"Shlemiel the First" is in fact meant to be novelty, and little else. Wives battle their husbands; men cross-dress; pickles and common Yiddish expressions are tossed around as stage gags. The trite phrases and cliched idioms that dominate prove poor substitutes for content. The company is forced to play out their roles with over-enthusiastic and sometimes spastic fervency.
In some cases the actors surpass their own script and achieve the seemingly impossible task of carrying 'Shlemiel' to a higher plane. Benjamin Evett who plays the mischievous Chaim Rascal as well as the Chelmish sage Dopey Pretzel, when not stealing Shlemiel's latkas is doing the same with the stage. Comfortable and at ease with the silliness with the lyrics, he sings with the glee of a Puck and the energy to match the Klezmer Band's clarinet. Also exceptional are the buffoon Gronam Ox and his wife Yenta Pesha (Marilyn Sokol). Shlemiel himself (Will LeBow) is shlemiely enough and improves in the second act when his role becomes more dynamic.
But the highlight of the ART's "Shlemiel the First" is truthfully the pit orchestra that will not stay put, The Klezmer Conservatory Band. This eight-piece ensemble grounds an over-the-top and shaky production on a solid yet raucous foundation. Providing more than enough energy to keep the musical moving while simultaneously sparking the audience into fervent rhythmic clapping, the Conservatory Band is the only element in the production which is successfully (and brilliantly) larger-than-life. Even taking time to march around and across the stage, the virtuosos never come off as contrived or absurd; they are the pulsing blood in an otherwise plastic production.
Under the direction of three conductors-Zalmen Motek, Evan Harlan and Timothy Steele-the orchestra pulls off the true to their style Klezmer songs and wildly outrageous parodies of Yiddish familiars with grace and ease. Particularly spectacular is Composer Mlotek's "Geography Song," a parody of a 1947 folk song by Aaron Lebedeff. Here Mlotek and musical adapter Hankus Wetsky are successful where Brustein fails; they masterfully adapt the familiar melodies and lyrical stories which are so much a part of Yiddish culture into vibrant and enjoyable pieces which augment and respectfully recognize their source. The music of "Shlemiel the First" is as thoughtful as it is hilarious; it is fun, but not hollow.
Towards the end of the production, it almost seems that the music unifies the disparate elements of 'Shlemiel' and carries the musical to success. Grandmothers and small children alike stomp their feet and clap their hands with enthusiasm-and the entire audience joins the players in a sort of joyous festival. Because everyone has come to enjoy the production, the goofiness of 'Shlemiel' doesn't annoy such a sympathetic crowd. Its silliness and the exhaustion of one-liners in a skewed way adds to the twisted or morbid fascination that it evokes.
With players who are nothing if not warmly enthusiastic and eager to ham up the absurdity, the ART's "encore performance" of "Shlemiel the First" is much like a family gathering. With two hours of somewhat shallow comedy, the love of relations (if somewhat distant and misunderstood) is still love. And it's good as long as you don't try to ponder the event the next morning.
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