BWW Review: Delightful and Charming YENTL at The New Jewish Theatre
Apparently, due to legal issues with rights that had to be worked out, this version of YENTL, based on the short story "Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy" written by Isaac Bashevis Singer (book by Leah Napolin and Singer), cannot be referred to in its title as a musical. It all has to do with Barbra Streisand's dreary and dreadful (although some people adore it) 1983 musical film version. But, there's no confusing the two once you see this utterly charming adaptation. It adheres closely to Singer's work, while the film veers off into a direction which not only makes little sense, but also butchers the author's intent. That's a shame, but when you're writing, directing, starring, etc, you can tend to lose sight of the actual story, turning it instead into a nothing more than a self-serving star vehicle. Jill Sobule's music (she composed "I Kissed a Girl", oddly enough) provides a genre-hopping mix of styles that may, at times, seem anachronistic, but which serve the tale very well. The New Jewish Theatre's current production is a delight, and I heartily recommend it.
Taking place in the late 1800's in Poland, the story focuses on Yentl, a young girl who's too smart for her own good, at least, according to her beloved father. He would like to see her married off and making babies, but Yentl just has too much of an intellectual bent to her personality to settle for that. Instead, she dreams of studying the Talmud, something that is just not permitted for women. So, when her father passes, she disguises herself as a young boy named Anshel, and follows her dream. Too much information would spoil the story, but needless to say, this isn't Streisand's YENTL by any stretch of the imagination. And, that's a good thing.
Shanara Gabrielle is a force of nature as Yentl/Anshel, and you really root for her in her quest to succeed, even if she has to pose as another gender in order to achieve it. Gabrielle is an excellent actress and takes the lead on nearly every song in the score. It's a performance that truly delivers greatness, and one that should not be missed. Andrew Michael Neiman is also quite strong as Avigdor, pining for his beloved Hadass, whose mother called off their nuptials when a "skeleton" was found in his family's closet. He winds up in Beshev, studying with Anshel, and a true kinship develops between the pair. And, though there's a natural attraction between them, it is one that cannot be broached without the truth of Anshel's identity being brought forth. Instead, he encourages his friend to pursue Hadass, with the thinking being that this will somehow bring him closer to her through their shared relationship with Anshel. Taylor Steward does fine work as well as the smitten Hadass, and the wedding night scene is a genuine farcical hoot.
An exceptional supporting cast that all play multiple roles includes: Terry Meddows, Peggy Billo, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Amy Loui, Will Bonfiglio, Brendan Ochs, Luke Steingruby, and Jack Zanger. All of them add immensely to the proceedings in their portrayal of various characters.
Edward Coffield's direction is spot on. The humor and heart of the story is present in every moment, and he has a wonderful cast to work with. Charlie Mueller's musical direction is also nicely done, with rock, pop, klezmer, and other musical styles deftly performed by a group that includes: Aaron Doerr (guitar), Adam Anello (bass), and Dana Hotle (clarinet). The choreography by Ellen Isom sparkles with amusing touches that add to the overall enjoyment. Peter and Margery Spack add yet another lovely scenic design to their already burgeoning portfolio (with Margery providing props as well), and Seth Jackson lights it all with considerable aplomb. Michele Friedman Siler's costumes are evocative of the period as well.
YENTL is a true triumph, brimming with humor and tackling issues of gender and identity along the way. The New Jewish Theatre's terrific production continues through June 5, 2016. And, hey, even if you're a fan of the film, you'll find plenty to enjoy here. It may even have you rethinking your opinion of the movie, once you've seen the story told in more faithful fashion.