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Bar Mitzvah Boy

Lost Jule Styne musical about a British family dealing with a 13-year-old son who creates near chaos is an absorbing story of human problems in its US premiere.

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Julie Benko and Peyton Lusk in a scene from “Bar Mitzvah Boy” (Photo credit: Ben Strothmann)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

You may have thought you had seen all of Jule Styne’s book musicals but there is one you have most likely missed. Bar Mitzvah Boy, adapted by Jack Rosenthal from his BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Award winning teleplay about a thirteen year old British boy who runs away from his own ceremony, with lyrics by Tony and Oscar winning lyricist Don Black, was written for London’s West End in 1978 and never transferred to Broadway. In 1987, the American Jewish Theater staged a cut down version at the 92nd Street Y that was reset in Brooklyn, 1946 and eliminated many of the songs. As part of The Winter 2018 Musicals in Mufti Series “Celebrating Legendary Broadway Composer Jule Styne,” the York Theatre Company is staging the American premiere of David Thompson’s new 2016 version which returns the show to Willesden, a suburb of North West London, in 1970 and includes new songs by Black to trunk melodies by Styne.

The original musical with its 16 named characters was criticized by the London critics for being an overblown version of the famous television play. Thompson’s new book based on Rosenthal’s 1978 libretto as well as the 1976 teleplay uses only eight characters. Obviously a chamber musical, the writing and the characters are so well drawn that this is a charming if minor evening in the theater. Annette Jolles’ cast led by veteran actors Ned Eisenberg, Lori Wilner and Tim Jerome makes the upwardly mobile Green family three-dimensional people. While the songs are tied entirely to the plot and it is unlikely one will hear them outside of the show, there are several memorable numbers. Like Fiddler on the Roof, the story may be about a Jewish family, but the problems and their reactions are universal. Which family hasn’t had a wedding, a birthday, an anniversary, a funeral to arrange where everything didn’t go according to plan?

On the Friday before his bar mitzvah, thirteen year old Eliot Green (Peyton Lusk) is having second thoughts about his upcoming rite of passage into manhood. Not that he no longer believes or doesn’t know his prayers, but if becoming a man means resembling his hypocritical father Victor (Eisenberg), his dotty Granddad (Jerome) and his sister’s pushover boyfriend Harold (Ben Fankhauser), then he isn’t sure that he wants to go through with it.

Lori Wilner, Ben Fankhauser and Ned Eisenberg in a scene from Jule Styne’s “Bar Mitzvah Boy” (Photo credit: Ben Strothmann)

It all starts when his neurotic mother Rita (Wilner) insists he get a haircut for the big day. However, he doesn’t think his bar mitzvah should be “a hair cutting competition” with his mother and his sister Lesley (Julie Benko) who have theirs under control. When he does run away just at the moment he ought to have gone up to the altar, his parents are fit to be tied as they have 117 people coming for a dinner dance at the Reuben Shulman Hall in his honor that evening. Will his father kill him? Can he ever face Rabbi Sherman (Neal Benari) again? Can they go through with the dinner dance and what about Eliot’s doubts about “growing up”?

This new version includes 11 songs from the original West End and ten new ones created by Black to unused melodies by Styne. The score includes the witty “The Bar Mitzvah of Eliot Green” and the catchy “This Time Tomorrow (it will be over)” sung by the family; the clever “Rita’s Request” after Eliot has embarrassed her before the congregation; the lovely “You Wouldn’t Be You” sung by Lesley to her brother; the poignant “The Sun Shines Out of Your Eyes,” sung to Eliot by his father; and the final and moving, “I’ve Just Begun” sung by the bar mitzvah boy when all has been worked out to everyone’s satisfaction. While the cast has been chosen mostly for their acting ability, the score is beautifully put over by the cast of eight.

Jolles’ cast could not be better for this material. Lusk who is himself 13 years old and has already been bar mitzvahed proves himself to be a bundle of energy and knows his way around the stage. (He understudied the bar mitzvah boy in the last revival of Falsettos.) As his sister Lesley, Benko is both bossy around her boyfriend and endearing with her useful wisdom. Wilner’s Rita (“If don’t do the worrying, who will?”) is an amusing mix of neuroses and nostalgia. As played by Eisenberg, Eliot’s father Victor is a believable combination of obliviousness, hypocrisy and selfishness but loving nevertheless. Fankhauser is winning as Harold, Lesley’s boyfriend who can’t stop helping around the Green house even though she does not seem to appreciate it. As Rabbi Sherman, Benari, returning to the New York stage after a long absence, is an understanding and compassionate man of God.  Casey Watkins in her two brief appearances as Eliot’s classmate establishes a real teenager. Tim Jerome (“I’m the happiest man in the world”) isn’t given much to do as Granddad.

Peyton Lusk, Julie Benko and Tim Jerome in a scene from Jule Styne’s “Bar Mitzvah Boy” (Photo credit: Ben Strothmann)

While the Musicals in Mufti series are presented concert style with book in hand, the cast hardly ever looks at their scripts. Though James Morgan is listed as scenic consultant, the minimalistic production consists of some chairs, a bench and a table. Graham Kindred’s subtle lighting keeps from interfering with the story line. The uncredited costumes and changes are entirely suitable for the story. While Darren R. Cohen’s music direction at the piano is excellently played, the score would be more impressive with a larger orchestration. The new musical arrangements are by David Loud.

Bar Mitzvah Boy may not be a top-drawer Jule Styne musical, but Jack Rosenthal’s original story and David Thompson’s new book are excellently observed to have the ring of truth. The family chaos in planning the affair and problems precipitated by the young son’s behavior are sharply and shrewdly detailed enough to be absorbing in a way that all can relate to. Annette Jolles’ production for The York Theatre Company gets a great deal out of the material even in a version without the trappings of a full production. It is also a pleasant surprise to see an unfamiliar musical by major talents which fills in a gap in their careers.

Bar Mitzvah Boy (through February 18, 2018)

The York Theatre Company

The Winter 2018 Musicals in Mufti Series

Celebrating the Legendary Composer Jule Styne

The Theater at Saint Peter’s, 619 Lexington Avenue, at 54th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-935-5820 or visit http://www.yorktheatre.org

Running time: one hour and 55 minutes with no intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (497 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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