You Don’t Have to be Jewish to Appreciate PTC’s STARS OF DAVID—But It Helps

by Arnie Finkel

Brad Oscar, Donna Vivino, Joanna Glushak and Alex Brightman singing “’The Book of Norman”“ in the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s STARS OF DAVID. Photo credit: Mark Garvin.

I read Abigail Pogrebin’s book STARS OF DAVID a while ago, and couldn’t help wondering how Aaron Harnick, who conceived the idea, was going to make this series of short biographical chapters into a musical. He enlisted some pretty powerful talents to mold the show into a respectable evening’s entertainment.

Book writer Charles Busch (THE TALE OF THE ALLERGIST’S WIFE) used the Bat Mitzvah of the Journalist/Narrator’s daughter as the thread tying the evening together. It is her search for the “Jewishness” of famous people that is the subject matter of the show. Many of the theater’s best composers and lyricists supplied the score. Some are more successful than others.

The most commercial piece, and the best song in the show, is “Broken Pieces” (music Marvin Hamlisch/lyrics Alan & Marilyn Bergman) in a section devoted to the Bergmans. It refers to collecting the pieces of the glass stepped on at the conclusion of a Jewish wedding and presenting them to the couple on their first anniversary. I was impressed by the mood of “The Women Who Had No Names” (music Jeanine Tesori/lyrics Susan Birkenhead) in the Gloria Steinem section, which dealt with a women-only new Seder—the ceremony of the Passover dinner. “As If I Weren’t There” (music Tom Kitt/lyrics Abigail Pogrebin) was an affecting piece about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s being excluded from the prayers mourning for her mother because of her sex.

In “Horrible Seders” (Music and lyrics Michael Friedman) Alex Brightman as Tony Kushner sang the line “Every house has a room in it” describing how being Jewish is good training for being gay. Brightman also related Leonard Nimoy’s experience with anti-Semitism in “Lenny The Great” (music David Messe/lyrics Nathan Tysen). The song was about Nimoy’s receiving anti-Semitic literature along with a magic trick he purchased as a young boy. Aaron Sorkin was represented by “Smart People” (music David Shire/lyrics Richard Maltby). Brad Oscar sang this lyric as quickly, as if he were on the set of West Wing, and sold the idea of not using the obvious rhymes for Jewish very well. Oscar also appeared as Norman Lear in “The Book Of Norman” (music and lyrics Sheldon Harnick) and made us appreciate Lear’s fight against any social injustice.

Joanna Glushak, Alex Brightman, Nancy Balbirer, Brad Oscar and Donna Vivino in STARS OF DAVID. Photo Credit: Mark Garvin.

The female cast members, singers Joanna Glushak and Donna Vivino were terrific portraying a 13-year-old, a typical Jewish mother, a terrific imitation of Fran Drescher, a fair Joan Rivers, and various others. They sang with relish and verve. Nancy Balbirer gave a solid performance as the Narrator. I loved the section when she brought her non-Jewish boyfriend to dinner with her parents who effectively squash the relationship in a very funny scene.

A four piece orchestra behind the set, conducted by Jeff Marder, provided superior accompaniment to the singers, but with so many composers the show lacked musical cohesion. Each piece was good but had little or no relation to the others. Director Gordon Greenberg kept everything bubbling along at a super pace. The set (Beowulf Boritt), use of projections, lighting (Howell Binkley) and costumes (Alejo Vietti) were perfectly in tune with the production, but from where I sat the four TV sets were a waste.

The script uses many Yiddish phrases. While there is a glossary in the middle of the program, anyone who didn’t grow up Jewish will not fully appreciate the meaning of some of the critical points. That is not to say that non-Jews won’t like STARS OF DAVID. It is a pleasant hour and a half played with no intermission.

Book by Charles Busch
Music and Lyrics by many Broadway composers
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Conceived by Aaron Harnick
October 17 to November 18 2012
Philadelphia Theatre Company
Suzanne Roberts Theatre
480 South Broad Street Philadelphia PA 19102

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