The Jerusalem Syndrome: A Musical Comedy of Biblical Proportions is the latest world premiere to be offered by The York Theatre Company which specializes in musicals both old and new. This latest one is a light entertainment which is enjoyable but never rises above the level of an undeveloped premise. However, co-authors Laurence Holzman and the late Felicia Needleman neatly tie up all the plot strands by the end. Under the direction of Don Stephenson, the hard working cast includes veteran musical comedy practitioners Farah Alvin and Lenny Wolpe who make more out of their many roles than the writing would justify. However, the cast is never allowed to let loose in what is essentially a modern farce.
The Jerusalem Syndrome is a mental condition in which visitors to Jerusalem are so overcome by the spiritual atmosphere that they believe that they are characters in the Bible. Since the 1960’s, doctors have diagnosed 200 cases a year. After hospitalization, most people come out of this state by the end of a week, but others remain in their illusion. Jewish people believe they are characters in the Old Testament while Gentiles believe they are characters from the New Testament. Usually they are rather embarrassed when they come out of this state. Others do not recall much.
Holzman and Needleman’s plot concerns several sets of travelers from three separate flights who arrive in Jerusalem and are overcome with this syndrome. Each has an underlying problem or a deficiency that bothers them on a daily basis and leads to their psychosis. Phyllis Feinberg, a college professor of literature, is traveling to Israel with her corporate businessman husband Alan who is never off of his cell phone. Although they have tried repeatedly, they have been unable to have a child. Phyllis hopes to have a second honeymoon but Alan won’t be parted from his phone even when they are at the Western Wall. Traveling alone is Lynn Horowitz who has recently been dumped by her boyfriend who ran off with his secretary and this has made her mistrust men – and herself.
Elsewhere Eddie, an awkward klutzy young man, is conducting his first tour group for his travel agent parents with two couples who are friends of theirs. Certain he will mess up, he is continually tripping or dropping things. Charles Jackson, a gay atheist African American, has inherited property in Jerusalem and is traveling to sell it to a conglomerate which plans to build a gay friendly hotel directly opposite the Church of the Holy Sepulcher but the church officials are not so happy about it. Soap star Mickey Rose is traveling to Israel to appear in a mini-series about Abraham in which he plays the title role which he feels less than prepared to impersonate. He wears his fame rather uncomfortably, always recognized wherever he goes – except by Phyllis.
Once on the streets of Jerusalem, Phyllis thinks she has become Sarah, who famously was unable to have children with her husband Abraham, while Mickey finds he is Abraham with whom he had previously been unable to identify. Eddie turns into the take-control Moses who famously led the Israelites out of Egypt. Charles finds that he has becomes Jesus and goes about Jerusalem doing good deeds. Lynn suddenly thinks she is God, omnipotent and able to control men.
Other characters think they are Eve, Noah, King David, John the Baptist and two Marys who fight over Jesus. When they meet at the psychiatric ward of the Hadassah Hospital where people with the Jerusalem syndrome are treated, it is Lynn as God and Eddie as Moses who frees them and some go off with him, while she sends Sarah and Abraham back to Hebron where they came from. The mild humor is often taken from events in the Bible which the characters think they are responsible for like Eve and her apple and John the Baptist who will not give up his holy water.
The musical turns into a farce as the visitors travel around and the ones not struck by the syndrome attempt to find their missing family members. It is a great many characters to follow. To make matters more difficult, Eddie’s four tour members suddenly play four other Americans with the Jerusalem syndrome so that with the doctor and the nurse and the policeman we are suddenly following about 20 characters. While Kyle Rosen’s music is bouncy and buoyant, the lyrics aren’t always up to par. However, the second act features much more clever songs that the first, with our heroes and heroines dealing with their delusions as they make their way from the hospital.
While all of the cast sing well, they are variable as to the quality of the written characterizations they are offered. As the nominal heroine Phyllis Feinberg, Farah Alvin is rather bland though she tries hard to compensate with a good deal of emoting as Sarah. As her husband Alan, Jeffrey Schecter is one-dimensional as the workaholic businessman. Chandler Sinks is amusing as the klutzy Eddie who turns into the commanding Moses but he could be more antic along with his physical pratfalls.
Alan H. Green is fine as Charles but the show does not allow him to develop past his becoming the mellower Jesus. While he was not very Italian as Fabrizzio in the Encores!’ revival of The Light in the Piazza back in June, James D. Gish gives the best performance as the handsome soap star who is much more intelligent than people give him credit for, with a big voice as well as demonstrating leading man aptitude. As Nurse Rena who has a crush on him from his daytime soap, Laura Woyasz is very droll. Comedian/singer Lenny Wolpe playing two roles is not allowed to make them very different.
James Morgan’s unit set for the many locations in and around Jerusalem solves the problem of the small stage at the Theatre at St. Jeans but is unable to differentiate between them. Fan Zhang’s costumes vary between colorful outfits for the travelers and shop keepers and matching bedsheets for the psychiatric patients who escape from the hospital as Biblical characters. Caite Hevner’s projection design is a bit too muted to make much of an impression. The lighting design by Rob Denton distinguishes between day and night scenes but lacks atmosphere in such a rich setting. Polly Solomon is responsible for the witty props.
The Jerusalem Syndrome is a pleasant new musical comedy with some fine clever songs and good comic moments. However, Don Stephenson’s production does not take the farcical elements far enough nor does he allow the cast to really have fun with their wacky roles. Playing this material mainly straight undercuts the inherent fun in the premise and plot as the Jerusalem syndrome is ripe for satire.
The Jerusalem Syndrome (through December 30, 2023)
York Theatre Company
Theatre at St. Jean’s, 150 E. 76th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-935-5820 or visit http://www.yorktheatre.org/buy-tickets
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission