BWW REVIEW: The Con Is on in KING OF SECOND AVENUE
Book and lyrics by Robert Brustein; music by Hankus Netsky; based on the 1893 novel "The King of Schnorrers" by Israel Zangwill; directed by Matthew "Motl" Didner; choreographer and assistant director, Merete Muenter; scenic design, Jon Savage; costume design, Frances McSherry; lighting design, Natalie Robin; sound design, Mike Stanton; stage manager, Anna Burnham
Cast in Alphabetical Order:
Remo Airaldi, Schmuelly; Ken Cheeseman, Wilkinson; Jeremiah Kissel, Joseph E. Lapidus; Abby Goldfarb, Dolores; Will LeBow, Da Costa; Alex Pollock, Joseph E. Lapidus, Jr.; Kathy St. George, Rosalie Lapidus
Performances and Tickets:
Extended through March 8, New Repertory Theatre, Charles Mosesian Theater, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, Mass.; tickets are $30-$60 and are available by calling the New Rep Box Office at 617-923-8487 or online at www.newrep.org
THE KING OF SECOND AVENUE, currently in its world premiere at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, Mass., is a new Klezmer musical by Tony Award-winner Robert Brustein (founder of both the Yale Repertory Theatre and American Repertory Theater) and composer Hankus Netsky (chair of the New England Conservatory's Contemporary Improvisation Department and founder and director of the Klezmer Conservatory Band). While this musical comedy tribute to the traditions of Yiddish theater aims high, it feels more like tired vaudeville than the raucous satire to which it aspires. The cons, cultural tropes, stock characters and winking attitudes are all there, but fast-paced zingers are sorely missing.
Based on the 1893 novel "The King of Schnorrers" by Israel Zangwill, the musical pits a conniving out-of-work Yiddish actor (a Sephardic Jew named Da Costa) against the greedy Ashkenazi movie mogul (Joseph E. Lapidus) whose Biblical adventure flicks have taken over the Second Avenue theater in which Da Costa once starred. Seeking revenge, and a dowry for his daughter's marriage, Da Costa (Will LeBow) sets in motion an elaborate swindle or schnorr, fleecing the unwitting Lapidus (Jeremiah Kissel) of his clothes, money, groceries, and ultimately self-respect. Along the way Da Costa enlists other out-of-work Yiddish actors to assist in the con, which takes place during Purim at Lapidus' Park Avenue penthouse.
The set-up is a promising one, but Brustein's story is so heavily dependent on a knowledge of Jewish culture and Yiddish nomenclature that it's difficult for a gentile to follow. Jokes fall flat for the uninitiated, and efforts by the author to "translate" words repeatedly only slow momentum and kill comic timing.
Performances are also hit and miss, which is surprising given the pedigree of director Matthew Didner's esteemed cast. LeBow seems to be holding back as Da Costa, favoring the haughty, gentlemanly side to his character rather than the delectable schemer. Kathy St. George is great fun as Lapidus' shrewish wife Rosalie, especially when vamping in her big jazzy solo "True Love," but she is saddled with a terrible bit of business that she is made to repeat ad nauseam. Abby Goldfarb is a formidable "princess" as Da Costa's daughter Dolores, and Remo Airaldi plays believably against type as the smitten fiancé Schmuelly. Ken Cheeseman makes for a snooty butler Wilkinson, and Alex Pollock brings a perverted slacker sensibility to his Joseph E. Lapidus, Jr. Ultimately, though, it is Jeremiah Kissel who crafts the one truly memorable character. His Hollywood producer is a cross between Orson Welles and Groucho Marx. He's the only actor willing to go for broke and pepper his exaggerated vaudeville with witty improvisation.
Both Didner's direction and Marete Muenter's choreography seem tentative. They shy away from the all-out farce and unbridled slapstick that could infuse THE KING OF SECOND AVENUE with the energy that is needed. Thankfully Netsky's Klezmer score suffers no such fate. Every time music director David Sparr's five-piece band takes the spotlight, feet start tapping and heads start bopping. The music is the highlight of the show.
Scenic designer Jon Savage has cleverly crafted a flexible set that morphs from the seedy New York City storefronts of Second Avenue in the 1960s to the spacious Lapidus loft that overlooks Central Park. Frances McSherry's costumes seem to transform magically, turning street beggars into Purim dinner guests in an instant. Natalie Robin's lighting and Mike Stanton's sound add to the whimsical atmosphere.
It will be interesting to see how THE KING OF SECOND AVENUE evolves in later productions. Less history lesson and more madcap shenanigans could give the show the lighter touch it needs to really soar.
PHOTOS BY ANDREW BRILLIANT: Will LeBow as Da Costa and Jeremiah Kissel as Joseph E. Lapidus; Ken Cheeseman as Wilkinson and Kathy St. George as Rosalie Lapidus; Abby Goldfarb as Dolores and Remo Airaldi as Schmuelly