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Bar Mitzvah Boy

Photo by Ben Strothmann



                      By Ed Lieberman


As the old commercial for Levy’s Rye used to say, “You don’t have to be Jewish” to enjoy this heartwarming tale of adolescent angst.

The York Theatre Company’s 108th production in its “Musicals in Mufti”* series is Bar Mitzvah Boy, a light coming-of-age comedy. The musical is based upon a 1976 British teleplay of the same name by author Jack Rosenthal, which garnered the 1977 BAFTA Best Single Play award and is still on the British Film Institute’s “BFI TV 100,” a list of the top 100 British television programs.  After its success, a producer approached Mr. Rosenthal about adapting the film for the musical stage. Rosenthal agreed after hearing that Broadway great (but British-born) Jule Styne (already renowned for Bells Are Ringing, Gypsy, Do Re Me, Funny Girl, Subways are for Sleeping and Halleujah, Baby, among many others) would pen the score, and Don Black would provide the lyrics. With so much talent on board, the producer decided to rescale the intimate family drama to the West End stage (i.e. going from off-Broadway to Broadway). Unfortunately, creative difficulties arose between the competing egos and their visions for the show (later chronicled in Rosenthal’s 1981 comedy, Smash!”). After previews in Manchester, the show ran only 77 performances at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London. In 1987, the show was revised and Americanized (set in Brooklyn) for the American Jewish Theater in New York and performed briefly at the 92nd Street Y, to mixed reviews. This production is based on a new book by David Thompson, which scales the production back to its original concept and locale.

The story is a simple and -- although it probably helps to be Jewish -- universal story of adolescent angst at approaching a milestone in growing up. It is the night before Eliot Green is about to become Bar Mitzvah’d, the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony, for which he has dutifully prepared for the past year. Eliot (Peyton Lusk) is an intelligent boy, fluent in at least three languages, and is well-prepared for performing the task before him: reading from the Torah. He has his doubts, however, about whether he is ready -– or willing -- to become an adult. He looks at his mother (Lori Wilner) obsessing over the details of the reception to follow (who’s coming; the seating arrangements; should they give the rabbi’s wife – who they’ve never met – a corsage) and his father (Ned Eisenberg), who has cashed in three insurance policies to pay for it and who just wants to get through the next 24 hours, after which “this will all be a dream” -- and balks. He refuses to get the haircut everyone has asked him to get simply because his parents say he has to (“The Torah doesn’t say anything about this being a bloody hairdressing contest!”) and confesses to his older sister, Lesley (Julie Benko) that he is not ready to give up all of the things he has enjoyed doing as a “child,” such as games and paper airplanes.

Finally, the day has arrived. The service has begun. Eliot’s father and grandfather have their aliyah’s and it is time for Eliot to read his haftorah. The rabbi calls him to the Torah. Eliot stands up and . . . runs away!

Cut back to the Green house. The ceremony is over, with no Bar Mitzvah Boy. No one knows where Eliot is, but that concern is only half his parents’ concerns: his mother recalls that Mrs. Cohen’s son flubbed the reading of his Torah portion and she still wears a mask when she goes out. She wonders if it’s not too late to emigrate; short of that, she asks those assembled to just “Kill Me!” His father wonders whether he can get some of the costs back from the caterer. The rabbi comes over. No one can recall this ever happening before.

Meanwhile Eliot is at the school playground where a female classmate, Denise (Casey Watkins), happens upon him. In response to her question about why he is there when he is supposed to be being Bar Mitzvah’d, he explains what having a Bar Mitzvah means – a rite of passage. She expresses surprise at his anxiety, explaining that he will become a man whether or not he performs well at his Bar Mitzvah; that her “passage” came when her mother took her to get her first bra (a double-A cup”)! Denise goes home and calls Eliot’s house, telling Lesley where he is. Lesley goes to the playground. At first she asks if he ran away because he forgot his portion. He denies it and proves it by saying his lines while standing on his head. In the most moving scene of the show, she tells him that he can be an adult and not change who he is (“You Wouldn’t Be You”). They go home and confront the adults. When the rabbi hears that Eliot actually performed his haftorah standing on his head, he saves the day: after all, God is everywhere; that means God is at the synagogue and in the playground, as well! Thus, Eliot has, in fact, been Bar Mitzvah’d!

Photo by Ben Strothmann

The cast here was on the whole, outstanding. Young Peyton Lusk, who, at just 13, has already appeared on Broadway in Falsettos, was particularly good as the conflicted Eliot. He has a strong voice to go along with significant stage presence. Expect to see his name again in the near future. Likewise Julie Benko, who played Eliot’s sister, Lesley. She and Mr. Lusk displayed real chemistry and affection for each other and acted their roles superbly. Broadway veteran Lori Wilner had the heavy lifting as Eliot’s obsessive/compulsive mother and Ned Eisenberg played the emotionally detached father. Handsome Ben Fankhauser did well in a limited role as Lesley’s schlemiel-like boyfriend (a role that this reviewer found to be redundant and unnecessary, but that is not Mr. Fankauser’s fault). Tim Jerome, as Eliot’s grandfather, and Neal Benari, as the Rabbi, rounded out the cast.

Although the draw for this show is the fact that the score was written by Mr. Styne, this was not his most celebrated of scores. Don’t expect to hear any songs that have survived on their own. It was, in fact, the only show he wrote that was written expressly for the British stage, and the lyrics, by Mr. Black are largely unmemorable. That said, the show is heartwarming and incisive as a story of adolescence, Jewish or non, perhaps due to its pedigree as a play, rather than as a musical, and due to the talents of the cast in putting meat on the bones of their characters.

The Musicals in Mufti productions are structured as brief runs (one week), with even briefer rehearsal schedules. That means less time to learn lines (the actors have the scripts in hand) and music. Indeed, at the talk-back after the reviewed performance one of the adult actors said that in order to learn lines so quickly, the actors have to “empty their heads of everything,” and that the adults had “more to clear out” than the younger actors. That appeared to play out, as Mr. Lusk and Ms. Benko appeared better prepared than the adults in the cast, whose references to the script sometimes proved distracting. As the run progresses, however, and the actors become more familiar with the lines and with each other, this is expected to become less of an issue.

Bar Mitzvah Boy continues at the York Theatre Company, 619 Lexington Avenue (54th Street), through February 18, 2018.

The final show in the 2018 Musicals in Mufti season, dedicated this year to celebrating the music of Jule Styne, will be Subways Are For Sleeping, which will play Februay 24-March 4, 2018

*”Mufti,” is defined by the York Theatre company as a staged concert performance, “in street clothes; without the trappings of a full production.”