Sunday, May 19, 2013

SHLEMIEL THE FIRST • New Jewish Theatre

NJT's final show of its season is unique.  It's a musical adaptation of Isaac B. Singer's Chelm stories -- traditional, typically self-deprecating Jewish folk tales that involve foolish wisdom, where problems are solved the long way around with ill-conceived logic.  In Shlemiel the First, these tales are set to the tuneful, spirited, instantly recognizable klezmer music of Eastern European Jews.

Naturally, the story takes place in Chelm, a town believed to be occupied by fools.  It begins with Shlemiel (Terry Meddows) dozing away, while his wife, Tryna Ritza (Emily Baker), tries to wake him up.  She's got to get a move on to get out and sell her radishes, which brings in more for the family than Shlemiel's job as a beadle does.  In a number called, "We're Talking Chelm", the six wise men of the town (well, three people and three sock-puppets played by Mike Dowdy, Anna Skidis and Keith Thompson) exalt their brand of wisdom, while being guided by their leader, Gronam Ox (Todd Schaefer).  There's also Gronam's wife, Yenta Pesha (Johanna Elkana-Hale), who bemoans the fact that her blintzes aren't doing it for him anymore in a great turn by Elkana-Hale called, “Yenta’s Blintzes”.  Gronam has the idea, with the help of his wise men, to send Shlemiel out into the countryside to spread word of his esteem.  Mrs. Shlemiel comes to realize that she will miss him while he's gone, as will his children, Gittel and Mottel (Taylor Pietz and Mike Dowdy), but determined, and armed with his trusty dreidel, (adorned on one end with a radish), Shlemiel heads off.

Anna Skidis, Todd Schaefer (Gronam Ox),
Johanna Elkana-Hale (Yenta Pesha) and Keith Thompson.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Along the way he meets Rascal (Antonio Rodriguez), who easily tricks him for one of Shlemiel's latkes, and then robs him.  More mischief from Rascal leads Shlemiel in the wrong direction back towards his home, but Shlemiel thinks he's traveling onward.  Once he returns to Chelm, he is convinced that there must be 2 Chelms.  His family thinks he's nuts, but his wife, so happy to see him back safely, welcomes him warmly.  Now Shlemiel is REALLY convinced he's in some alternate Chelm.  He feels horribly guilty for his attraction to this "Mrs. Shlemiel number 2", but before things get straightened out, things that had become lost are regained, and Shlemiel rediscovers himself, providing plenty of silliness along the way.

Terry Meddows (Shlemiel) and
Antonio Rodriguez (Rascal).
Photo credit: John Lamb
This play stretches credibility no doubt, and as opposed to reading Singer's tales, seeing them onstage further magnifies the absurdity, but this challenge is met head-on by the cast and crew.  Edward Coffield's keen direction makes for a lively, albeit far-fetched romp that's brimming with a top-notch cast who all display great comic timing.  Meddows, with an innocent expression and a good voice, is appealing in the title role of the dimwitted Shlemiel.  Baker as his wife, most likely the smartest person in town, plays a level-headed but amusing Mrs. Shlemiel,  grounded and sincere in her frustration with, and love for her husband.  Elkana-Hale's got a powerful voice and is very funny as Yenta Pesha, Gronam's wife, and Schaefer practically steals the show as Gronam, playing the most foolish with energetic flair.  Rodriguez, in addition to occasionally playing a wise man, is a charming and wily Rascal, and Pietz and Dowdy turn in entertaining performances as the kids, as well the local womenfolk -- where Dowdy is absolutely hilarious.  He also plays one of the wise men, along with Thompson and Skidis -- who gets to show off her vocal prowess in the second act.

Antonio Rodriguez, Terry Meddows (Shlemiel)
and Todd Schaefer (Gronam Ox).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Margery and Peter Spack's rustic, storybook set makes a brilliant impression right as you walk in.  It exists on a platform of horizontal books, with a map and an arrow pointing to Chelm.  There are also books scattered vertically through the set with titles like, "Tales of Chelm", A Tale of 2 Chelms", and even "Game of Chelms".  Ha!  The musicians are perched in a neat little platform alongside the action, and there are a couple of set pieces in the back that rotate when Shlemiel is on his travels.  Michele Friedman Siler provides the wonderful costume design, with lighting design provided by Kimberly Klearman.  Under the musical direction of Henry Palkes, the quartet hits the traditional klezmer-styled music of Hankus Netsky and Zalmen Mlotek on the head.  The proceedings are also punched up with JT Ricroft's clever choreography.

It's playing at the New Jewish Theatre until the 9th.


Written by Robert Brustein adapted from Isaac B. Singer
Lyrics by Arnold Weinstein 
Music by Hankus Netsky with additional music by Zalmen Mlotek
Directed by Edward Coffield
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through June 9 | tickets: $35.00 - $39.00
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 7:30pm

Terry Meddows* (Shlemiel), Emily Baker (Mrs. Shlemiel), Todd Schaefer (Gronam Ox), Johanna Elkana-Hale (Yenta Pesha), Taylor Pietz (Gittel/other citizens of Chelm), Mike Dowdy (Mottel/Sender/other citizens of Chelm), Antonio Rodriguez (Tippish/Rascal/other citizens of Chelm), Anna Skidis (Dopey/Zeinvel/other citizens of Chelm) and Keith Thompson (Moishe/Mendel/other citizens of Chelm).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by Margery and Peter Spack; costume design by Michele Friedman Siler; lighting design by Kimberly Klearman; choreography by JT Ricroft; dance captain, Taylor Pietz; stage manager, Kate Koch.

Music director, Henry Palkes; violin, Alyssa Avery; clarinet, Dana Hotle; Bass, Adam Anello.

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