Review: From Generation to Generation (Genesis Theatricals)

     
     

Genesis generates amateurish night of theatre

     
     

From Generation to Generation - Genesis Theatricals poster

  
Genesis Theatricals presents
  
From Generation to Generation
   
Book by Karen Sokolof Javitch and Elaine Jabenis
Music and Lyrics by Karen Sokolof Jatitch
Directed by David Zak
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $30  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

The basic premise behind From Generation to Generation, the newest musical offering from Genesis Theatrical Productions, is solid. An old, ailing woman battles time to record everything she wants to tell a granddaughter she may never meet. In execution, the show, penned by Karen Sokolof Javitch and Elaine Jabenis and directed by David Zak (artistic director for the old Bailiwick), is hobbled by a lame script and a tendency to dumb down anything challenging. Leaving Stage 773, I was left wondering how this show got productions on both coasts already (and, apparently, awards). This is not a world premier, just a Chicago premier. Not only are there new musicals out there that dig deeper, there are sappy, easy shows that do sentimentality better.

It should be mentioned first that the cast puts a lot of heart out on the stage—I would be amiss to call them lethargic or disinterested. But they are fighting to keep adrift a boat that sunk before it left the harbor.

Javitch and Jabenis’ tale (Javitch also composed) revels in Jewish tradition and culture, throwing out Yiddish aphorisms and staging several ceremonies. The protagonist Rose (the lovable Susan Veronika Adler) even begins the show with a conversation with the Lord, a la Fiddler. But Joseph Stein’s classic contains far more dramatic heft and emotional vigor. From Generation to Generation forgets its premise halfway through, instead choosing to dally in a loose collection of memories until randomly slamming the lid close on the story. Along the way, the writers try to jerk some tears or get those gears of nostalgia churning. There’s a song where the old ladies remember how great things were in “simpler times”—hula hoops, Audrey Hepburn, etc. Quite a few slap-your-forehead obvious sections abound, along with several unintentionally funny moments. Other choices come out of nowhere, like a doo-wop tribute to former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Mier?

Rose’s story could be very touching—she struggles with terminal cancer and faces the harrowing fact that she may not live merely nine months more to see the birth of her granddaughter. There are more possible layers to Rose; she’s a widow and a faithful Jew, even in her bleak circumstances. Here, however, she gets inexplicably better and the heartfelt messages become more of a “remember that one time…” game between Rose and her friends, then her health inexplicably deteriorates again. It’s as if the creators forgot she was sick and then remembered her fatal illness when there were two scenes left to go. The two hour running time could probably be cut in half and we’d still get the general plot.

Zak’s cast does about as well as a show like this can let them. Many of them still pander to the audience (like Michelle McKenzie-Voigt as Rose’s zany best friend, Norma), set on showing us how much fun they are having. Others are woefully miscast into roles twenty years older than their range, such as Kris Hyland, struggling as the unconvincing former hippie Eliot, and Bobby Arnold as an embittered, anti-Semitic coach. The most satisfying performance in the show is Ashley Stein as Marsha, Rose’s daughter. Adler can carry the show, but she rushes moments and often fails to make true connections with the other actors.

This show would be fine if it came to your local synagogue and starred your neighbors. That’s where it belongs, in communities that need all the theatre they can get. Unfortunately, Chicago is not one of those towns. There’s a high bar, and at $30 a ticket, there are some high expectations. Genesis simply does not deliver.

   
  
Rating: ★½
  
   

From Generation to Generation continues at Stage 773 through May 1st, with performances Sundays Thursdya through Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $30, and can be purchased online or by calling 773-327-5252. 

  
  

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REVIEW: Fiddler on the Roof (Marriott Theatre)

Marriott takes the Jewish out of Fiddler

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Marriott Theatre presents

Fiddler on the Roof

Book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem
Directed and choreographed by David H. Bell,
musical direction by Doug Peck
Through April 25 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

With its haunting melodies, endearing characters and poignant, historic story, Fiddler on the Roof is one of the greatest musicals of all time. Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick crafted a musical so beautiful, so compelling, that — from Broadway theater to high-school auditorium — it’s a tough show to screw up. As with any production of this engaging show, Marriott Theatre’s "Fiddler" offers much to enjoy, but it’s a long way from a great version.

fiddler03 The story of Tevye, a Jewish dairyman, and his family and friends in the Russian shtetl Anatevka, ca. 1905, is a multi-layered tale both personal and sweeping. In its conflicts between progress and tradition, between generations, between duty and desire and between different faiths and cultures, "Fiddler on the Roof" offers many universal truths. Tevye is a father coming to grips with his children’s coming of age. Anatevka stands for a lost way of life, as exotic and vanished a culture as Brigadoon.

Yet despite the looming presence of the disruptive outsiders, Anatevka represents not just any lost society, but a Jewish homeland, a tight community whose people spoke their own Jewish tongue (Yiddish, the language in which Sholom Aleichem wrote the original stories that inspired this musical) and where they brought up their children according to age-old Jewish customs. Tevye, above anything else, is a deeply religious Jew. Further, his people’s traditions were not just left behind by the passing of time, they were murderously stolen by bitter bigotry.

Fiddler on the Roof, first and foremost, is a Jewish story. Director David H. Bell, in his perception of Tevye as a bland "Everyman," seems to have missed that point.

You’ll rarely hear any Yiddish or Hebraic accent in his version of "Fiddler." When the script or score compels it, as in the "bidi-bidi-bums" of the klezmer-style song, "If I Were a Rich Man," Ross Lehman, as Tevye, seems ill at ease, almost swallowing the fiddler04syllables. James Harms, meanwhile, plays the village rabbi like an Irish priest, complete with rolled R’s. The whole rhythm of the show seems off, in part because it lacks the cantorial cadence normally imbuing the lead.

Lehman may be the least patriarchal Tevye ever — not discounting those high-school productions. It’s not that he’s a tenor in a role typically cast for a baritone and a physically smaller man than the actors famous for this part; it’s mostly his tone. Tevye, a devout and spiritual man, expresses his deep, personal relationship with God and with his family conversationally and often sardonically throughout the play, but he isn’t snide. Lehman’s Tevye is snarky where he ought to be good-humoredly ironic, arch when he should be aggravated. His performance evokes Paul Lynde or Edna Turnblad (his most recent role at Marriott, a brilliant turn) more than Zero Mostel or Topol.

Beyond casting flaws, Bell’s direction and choreography frequently disappoint. Although he’s no newcomer to Marriott’s theater-in-the-round stage, this show seems to have challenged his ingenuity. From my seat in Section 4, far too many scenes had me looking at actors’ backs. Faces were often obscured by vertical posts or the back of another player’s head. This particularly marred the scenes where Tevye and the butcher Lazar Wolf (an oddly low key David Girolmo) talk at cross purposes and in which Tevye recounts his nightmare to his wife, Golde. Bell redeems these scenes somewhat by well-executed dance numbers, but there, too, I often seemed to be viewing them edge on.

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Marriott Theatre typically stages musicals with large casts beautifully, yet the "Fiddler" stage often seemed cramped and overcrowded, particularly in ensemble numbers such as the "Sabbath Prayer" sequence. Thomas M. Ryan’s set is lightly furnished (except for those unfortunate posts) and he’s used hanging lanterns and other tricks to expand the stage beyond its physical space, so that fault can’t be laid at his feet.

The ensemble as a whole perform very well, and nothing can rob the power from "To Life" or "Sunrise, Sunset." Andrew Keltz, as Motel, does a sweet version of "Miracle of Miracles," but there are no strong individual voices. Again, beyond Nancy Missimi’s traditional costumes, the characters, even in otherwise excellent performances such as Jessie Mueller’s anguished Tzeitel, Rebecca Finnegan’s brisk Yente and Paula Scrofano’s forthright Golde, rarely convey any sense of Jewish or Old World identity.

The residents of Bell’s Anatevka don’t need to go to America at the end of the play. They’re already there.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

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Review: Topol in “Fiddler on the Roof”

Sunrise. Sunset.

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Fiddler on the Roof
by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein
Thru June 28th at the Oriental Theatre

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

At its core, Fiddler on the Roof is a coming of age story, of Tevye’s daughters, of Tevye himself, of a people long acquainted with persecution.

Joy, heartbreak, and the ability to survive populate the Anatevka currently located in the Oriental Theatre. The big selling point for this North American tour of the classic musical is Chaim Topol, who has starred as Tevye around the world and in the 1971 film adaptation, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. His tried-and-true performance matches the rest of the production; director/choreographer Sammy Dallas Bayes has recreated Jerome Robbins’ original choreography and direction  from the 1964 Broadway debut for the tour. Instead of some sort of theatrical museum piece, though, Tevye’s tale still comes across as fresh and thought-provoking even Fiddler Cast 2though our Chicago is thousands of miles and centuries away from rural, tsarist Russia.

Tevye and his family were first conceived and published in Yiddish in the late 19th Century by Sholem Aleichem (pen name of Sholem Rabinovich). Composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick (a Northwestern University alum), and writer Joseph Stein found the modern resonance in Rabinovich’s tales of family, joy, and hardship, which were long out-of-print by the 1960’s. The title of the show, however, was inspired by painter Marc Chagall. The surrealist paintings of the Eastern European Jew also inspired the sets for the original 1964 production, as well as for the tour. The resulting musical, thematically grounded in the tension between traditional values and the shifting tides of time, is a collection of old and new. On top of being shaped by traditional Judaism and radical 20th Century views, this tour has the added element of Topol, one of Israel’s most famous actors.

Fiddler Cast 3 It took me a few scenes to get used to Topol’s portrayal of Tevye. He makes some unexpected choices, trading in ferocity for the weariness of a poor old man. His ability to underplay the role won me over by “If I Were a Rich Man.” His comic timing and deep emotional arc all spring from a profound knowledge of the character. His rich, baritone voice grabs hold of the audience during the musical numbers, whether they are moving or celebratory. His understanding of the script also allows him to ad lib a bit. If left to his own devices, I suspect these would add another 20-30 minutes to the run time, but Bayes has cut them down to an acceptable level.

Although the musical centers around Tevye (as well as most of the advertising for this tour), it would quickly fall apart without strong supporting actors. Susan Cella’s Golde is powerful, living in a patriarchal society but still having control over her husband and family. The scenes between her and Topol are hilarious, and the number where Tevye asks his wife if she loves him 25 years after meeting him on their wedding day (“Do You Love Me”), is beautiful. The daughters, played by Rena Strober (Tzeitel), Jamie Davis (Hodel), and Alison Walla (Chava), do a fine job settling being daddy’s little girl Cella and Topolwith falling in love without the traditional matchmaker. Erik Liberman’s Motel is plenty geeky, and Colby Foytik as the radical student Perchik is sometimes too wooden, but is also able to use it for comic effect. The townspeople do an excellent job recreating a feeling of small-town life, where tradition is based on local gossip as much as the Torah.

Even though the staging and choreography was recycled from the original production, the strong performances and timeless script make this Fiddler on the Roof as touching as anything Broadway has to offer right now. Balancing traditional values with reality can be as shaky as a fiddler on a roof, whether in 1894, 1964, or 2009.

Rating: ««««

Running thru Jun 28th
Oriental Theatre
Box Office: 312-902-1400, or buy tickets online.