Review: The York Theatre’s Oy-Vey-Worthy ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, February 15, 2018
First, let’s all acknowledge a deep debt of gratitude to the venerable York Theatre and their commitment both to fostering new musicals, and to unearthing old ones, polishing them off, and giving them a chance to shine in modern light. Kudos to the York, as well, for maintaining it focus on its ambition to present these works “in mufti,” i.e. with as few trappings as possible, thus keeping the focus on the quality of the works themselves.
This means the York has far less of an economic burden than, say, the Encores! series at City Center, so they don’t have to choose shows that will attract many thousands of ticket buyers. They can take chances on really obscure works, like Bar Mitzvah Boy, which runs at the York through February 18th. This is exactly the kind of show that the York should be doing as part of its Musicals in Mufti series.
It’s also pretty darned awful.
Bar Mitzvah Boy was first produced in London in 1978, and has music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Don Black. The original book was by the late Jack Rosenthal, based on his 1976 BBC teleplay of the same name. The stage version was directed by Martin Charnin and choreographed by Peter Gennaro, both fresh off their huge success with the Broadway musical Annie.
Despite all the brand-name staff on hand, Bar Mitzvah Boy closed after only 77 performances, or about two months. The musical was revised in 1987, and again in 2016, the latter with a new book by David Thompson (Steel Pier, The Scottsboro Boys, Prince of Broadway). It’s the 2016 version that the York uses in its current production, but this presumably improved version reflects none of Thompson’s trademark cleverness or inspiration.
As the title implies, Bar Mitzvah Boy involves the coming of age of one Elliot Green, a 13-year-old Jewish boy living outside of London in 1975. It’s pretty clear that the authors were aiming for a show that was funny and heartwarming, and now and then we see faint glimmers of success in this regard. We only need to look at Falsettos to see that a bar mitzvah can be both stirring and humorous. But the show gets weighed down in irritating family quirks and stock Jewish characterizations that feel like a Central Casting sampler.
What’s more, the reasoning behind the central complication in the plot — when young Elliot freezes in the middle of the ceremony and bolts out the door — is never convincingly explained. Supposedly, Elliot has been looking at the hypocrisy of the men in his family, and that fact that they don’t really seem to act like adult men should, and decides that he doesn’t want to risk becoming that kind of man. Um…huh?
The score is not exactly top-drawer Jule Styne, although there are some not-unpleasant tunes peppered here and there throughout he score. Then again, Styne wasn’t all that reliable when it came to writing genuinely integrated, meaningful musical scores. Yes, he composed the music for some beautiful songs over his career, but how many Jule Style shows do we still regularly perform today? Gypsy, and that’s about it. And even the success of that show may have more to do with the brilliance of his collaborators, particularly the great Stephen Sondheim.
Don Black’s lyrics have a uniform, uninspired feel to them, but that’s par for the course with Mr. Black. His output prior to Bar Mitzvah Boy consisted of some now-forgotten London shows (Billy, Budgie, and Dear Anyone) and a Broadway show that closed before opening night (The Little Prince and the Aviator). And his subsequent work was divided between desultory shows with Andrew Lloyd Webber (Tell Me on a Sunday/Song and Dance, Aspects of Love, Stephen Ward) and quick flops that are now best forgotten (Merlin, Dance of the Vampires, and two shows with Frank Wildhorn, Dracula and Bonnie and Clyde).
The cast for the York’s Bar Mitzvah Boy thankfully has a full complement of Broadway vets, including that old pro Timothy Jerome (Grand Hotel) as Elliot’s ebullient grandfather, and a sympathetic Ben Fankhauser (Newsies), as the schlemiel Harold, the put-upon suitor of Elliot’s sister.
The York’s celebration of composer Julie Styne began a few weeks back with Hallelujah, Baby!, and continues in two weeks with Subways Are for Sleeping, which hasn’t seen the light of day since it eked out 200 or so performances on Broadway in 1962. At least with this show, I’m going in already knowing a handful of songs that I will likely enjoy in performance. Again, props to the York for bringing all of these shows to our attention once again. I just wish they were giving me more to praise.
Bar Mitzvah Boy presented as part of the York Theatre’s Musicals in Mufti series at the York Theatre Company at St. Peters, 619 Lexington Avenue, running through February 18, 2018. Book by Jack Rosenthal; music by Jule Styne; lyrics by Don Black; based on the teleplay by Jack Rosenthal; new book by David Thompson. Directed By Annette Jolles; music direction by Darren R. Cohen. Cast: Julie Benko (Lesley Green), Neal Benari (Rabbi Sherman), Ned Eisenberg (Victor Green), Ben Fankhauser (Harold), Tim Jerome (Grandad), Peyton Lusk (Eliot Green), Casey Watkins (Denise), and Lori Wilner (Rita Green).
Cover: (l. to r.) Julie Benko, Peyton Lusk, Lori Wilner, and Ned Eisenberg in ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy;’ photo: Ben Strothmann.