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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts


  Jeff Brooks, Darryl Winslow, Michael Iannucci (as Shlemiel), Jesse Means, David Skeist, and Kristine Zbornik/ Ph: Gerry Goodstein

Given the abundance of Christmas musicals and spectacles, and the big bucks that they tend to bring in every year, I’ve often wondered why there aren’t any competing Channukah shows. If not a show literally about Channukah, perhaps one somewhat influenced by the holiday that can be performed at the end of the year.

Shlemiel the First, which first premiered in 1994 at the American Repertory Theatre (and was rumored for Broadway at one point), has little to do with Channukah, even if the main character spins a dreidel in order to make decisions. But with its klezmer-flavored score and book based on an Isaac Ashevis Singer folk tale, this spirited revival, co-produced by New Audience and the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, is attracting a large Jewish audience to the Skirball Center at NYU, a large space usually reserved for award shows and the like.

Shlemiel (played with winning innocence by Michael Iannucci) is one of several completely idiotic men in the small town of Chelm. One day Shlemiel is instructed by Gronam Ox (the buffoonish Jeff Brooks), who claims to be the town’s wisest man, to travel outside Chelm in order to spread Gronam’s wisdom.

On his first night away from Chelm, a mischievous thief steals Shlemiel’s bag of latkes and leads him in the wrong direction, which brings him back to Chelm. But instead of realizing that he is back home, Shlemiel becomes absurdly convinced that he is in a second, alternate version of Chelm. Furthermore, his nagging but loving wife Tryna Ritza (Amy Warren) is not his wife, but the wife of Shlemiel the Second. Hence, this Shlemiel is Shlemiel the First.

The book, written by longtime director and critic Robert Brustein, should really be cut in half. At a two-hour running time, the lightweight concept feels too stretched out. Plus, the first half of the musical is spent setting up the comedic scenario, with the second half serving as the payoff.

But the jolly score, with upbeat music by Hankus Netsky and Zalmen Mlotek (who also conducts) and witty lyrics by Arnold Weinstein (“papa” is rhymed with “meshuggeh”), is thoroughly delightful. The excellent eight-piece band often emerges from the pit orchestra and joins the cast onstage while still playing their instruments.

David Gordon’s production, which takes on a slanted set by Robert Israel, indulges in broad humor a bit too much, perhaps as a result of playing in such a large venue. Yet except for some slow points, Shlemiel the First proves to be a lighthearted dose of fun with some wild klezmer music. 


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