AISLE SAY Philadelphia


Book and Lyrics by Glen Berger
Music by Frank London
 Conceived & Directed by Alexandra Aron
Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street
at Avenue of the Arts, Phila., PA 19102
Through Oct. 21, 2007 Box Office: (215) 569-9700

Reviewed by Claudia Perry

As its 128th production since its founding in 1984, Prince Music Theater has chosen to present "A Night in the Old Marketplace", a musical piece based on the 1906 play by I. L. Peretz, a Polish playwright dedicated to proving that Yiddish was a viable, artistic language. I call it a "musical piece" because running an hour and a half without an intermission, the work seems unfinished. If I had to categorize it, I would call it an avant-garde opera. The music is semi-operatic in nature and the mostly minor keys that it is played and sung in give it a dark, evocative feel. And the questions raised by the three leading male characters are on the lofty side: "What is the nature of god and man?" What is the nature of life and death?" "Why are we here?" "Why do we die?" and "Why can't we bring back the dead?"

The main story centers on the Badkhn, a Wedding Jester who has decided that life is pointless and so has decided to create the world anew by bringing about total anarchy. The reason, we find, is because he was the Jester at a wedding that went terribly wrong. Flashback: The young and pretty Sheyndele is in love with the young scholar, Nosn. But the scholar has no money and in order to help her family, the self-sacrificing Sheyndele consents to marry the rich merchant, Itzhak. At the wedding, Nosn calls her a whore and the Badkyn makes crude jokes that insult her. So, right after the ceremony, the unhappy Sheyndele throws herself down the well, committing suicide. Twenty years later, Nosn is the town drunk, Itzhak has become a recluse and the Badkhn has become an angry anarchist. So the Badkhn enlists the help of the spirit world by making a Gargoyle come alive. He then begs this female Gargoyle to raise Sheyndele from the dead so that she can marry her true husband, Nosn.

According to notes in the program from Alexandra Aron, who not only directed but also conceived this piece, there were hundreds of characters in the original play. Thankfully, here, most of them have been eliminated -- but still not quite enough of them. There are several "vaudevilles," little short stories, that add nothing to the proceedings and which do not further the plot. There are also a lot of "philosophical" songs -- a subject which an audience can only take so much of. On stage, didacticism wears itself out very fast, and three men making witty banter about why the world is a dung heap is a hard sell. Had the story centered more on the scholar and his lost bride, it would have held our interest and our hearts a lot longer.

The music by Frank London is dramatic, melodic in places and varied in structure. The orchestra, I am told, is a Klezmer band -- but not in the traditional sense. (If one is a purist there are only acoustic instruments in a Klezmer band and they can range from flutes and clarinets to violins, cellos, guitars and acoustic bass.) Perhaps one could call it a blending of the old and new Klezmer, for here there is an Electric Keyboard, an Accordion, an Electric Guitar, a Tuba and Drums. It is an odd sounding ensemble -- with so many rhythmic instruments and only a keyboard/accordion as a melodic instrument. So, though the music is very well executed, the orchestrations (done by Mr. London) have a hollow, empty sound and would benefit from either a woodwind or a member of the violin family. However, if Mr. London is striving to achieve a barren, hopelessness representing the hard, cold lives of these poor unfortunate creatures living in a walled shtetl in 1906, then he has achieved his goal.

Ray Wills is terrific as the slightly mad Badkhn. He talks and sings to the audience, serving as the narrator and the engine which drives the show. Deborah Grausman is very sweet in her all too small role as Sheyndele. (There is no opening number and why the show doesn't open with the original wedding scene is a "puzzlement.") Steven Rattazzi does well as the drunken Nosn and Charlotte Cohn shows off her glorious soprano voice as the gorgeous gargoyle.

Musical Director, Eric Barnes has done a good job for on the whole the voices of the entire cast are uniformly pleasing and the score is well sung. The songs, however, are quite wordy and therefore a lot of the content doesn't land as well as it should. So a good deal of the audience misses the nuances of the rhetorical arguments that are being bandied about. The most interesting musical numbers were the ones that did not employ the traditional Hora rhythm, but rather broke out into different areas. When the Badkhn sings, "Forever Yours" to the Gargoyle, it becomes a song of seduction performed by a sebaceous lounge singer. And when there is a dance break in "Meet Me in the Old Marketplace" it has a decidedly Latin feel.

The set by Lauren Halpern of bleak, gray stone was simple and effective. The decision to put the band up on the set proved to have some merits. Firstly, we could hear them and secondly the cast could hear them. The trend today seems to be to conceal the orchestra making it impossible for the singers to follow them. Unfortunately, the band was not assimilated into the set the way they should have been and looked as if they were just shoved up against the wall - which they were. Had an awning or a railing been provided - it would have appeared that they were indeed the town band, or the cafˇ band and were a true part of the proceedings.

There were other odd things like this on stage that jarred the onlooker out of the action. There's the matter of the bear. When Guil Fisher enters looking every inch the ancient, bearded Recluse that he portrays, he comes down a staircase. Following him, standing up on two legs, is a bear. (Well, one of the cast members in a bear suit - unlucky soul.) Anyway, the bear walks down the stairs -- and then just walks offstage! Okay, now you can't just have a bear appear and then disappear. I mean what is that all about? (I am told that in this case someone in charge fell in love with an old picture of a recluse with a trained bear and so incorporated this "vision" into the show. That's fine, just use the bear. I don't care if it sings or tap dances with its paws - but make it do something or give it the ax.) Another unfortunate sight (which I'm sure was due to a budgetary considerations) involved dressing women up in black raincoats, large round hats and long fake beards to look like male Hassidim. It's okay if the show is supposed to be camp - but I didn't think that's what the director was going for. However, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the writer (Glen Berger - book & lyrics) did want this to be camp and his vision wasn't fully realized. However, if this is the case, the whole show needs to be a heck of a lot funnier in order for it to qualify as a truly campy black comedy.

All in all this is a very ambitious piece of theatre and deserves to be seen by larger audiences than it has garnered so far. The Prince, unlike the Walnut, does not have a massive subscriber base and therefore must rely on the publicity generated for each individual show. It's especially hard to sell a new show. And as we all know, advertising is one of the biggest expenses that a theatrical budget can incur. It's a shame there is no organization like TKTS in NYC that could distribute unused tickets to the public at a discounted rate to fill up the house when it has not been fully sold. (The Prince might already have discounted rates for students and members of Actors Equity, check with the box office.) This would be a win-win situation for everyone, for there's nothing more disheartening for an actor than to play to a half full house. Undoubtedly, the Prince will have no problem filling their seats for their next productions, "An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin" which opens October 27, 2007 and the tried and true musical revue, "Ain't Misbehavin'" , that will follow.

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