Story: Shlemiel is a simple beadle (minor official) in the town of Chelm, a “village of fools” located between Everywhere and Elsewhere “a long, long time ago.” Shlemiel is exasperating to his wife, who has tolerated his imperfections for 20 years as he goes about his humdrum existence, and she needs to supplement his income in order to have food for their two surviving children.
When Gronam Ox, the self-proclaimed wise man of Chelm, decides that his wisdom needs to be known throughout the world, he sends Shlemiel on a mission to spread that message. Shortly after Shlemiel dutifully begins his daunting trek, he comes upon a “rascal” who dupes Shlemiel into heading back home after he rests for the night.
Robbed and misdirected, Shlemiel returns to Chelm but is told by Gronam Ox that he is not Shlemiel the First but a lookalike hereafter known as Shlemiel the Second. Even so, he finds himself attracted to the wife of Shlemiel the First and bonding with that man’s children. Very strange.
Highlights: Several people were involved in adapting short stories by Polish-American writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote in Yiddish and drew upon Jewish folk memories and mystical traditions. Many of his stories are set in Chelm, a mythical village of fools whose residents ultimately reveal the truth.
Shlemiel the First is a musical conceived and adapted by Robert Brustein, with lyrics by Arnold Weinstein and music composed, adapted and orchestrated by Hankus Netsky. The original 1994 production featured musical direction, arrangements and additional music by Zalmen Mlotek, with editorial supervision, direction and choreography by David Gordon.
That original production was remounted in 2010 in New Jersey and in 2011 in New York. Now, New Jewish Theatre offers the first independently produced presentation since then. It’s a charming and pleasant little piece that showcases the comic talents of nine capable players under the whimsical direction of NJT artistic associate Edward Coffield.
Other Info: Shlemiel the First features a score based on traditional klezmer music and Yiddish theater songs by Netsky of the Klezmer Conservatory Band. The music is lighthearted and upbeat if also repetitious and forgetful. It’s crisply performed by pianist and musical director Henry Palkes and a three-piece combo consisting of violinist Alyssa Avery, Dana Hotle on clarinet and Adam Anello on bass.
The silliness of the story is well served by the delightful set designed by Margery and Peter Spack, which incorporates long, slender books that serve as steps, an amusing floor map and a cartoonish background structure that is colorful and playful and features a two-piece door reminiscent of the old Laugh-In TV series.
Costumes by Michele Friedman Siler put the characters in a time and place centuries back in mostly utilitarian garb, and Alan Grell’s properties design contributes a giant dreydl that the hapless Shlemiel uses to help himself make decisions, as well as assorted sock puppets, tricycles and other knickknacks that color the tale.
The tunes are inconsequential but nonetheless pleasing, serving as a catalyst for JT Ricroft’s smooth choreography, while Kimberly Klearman’s lighting is most pronounced as it fancifully depicts Shlemiel’s journey.
While it’s just 90 minutes with no intermission, Shlemiel grows wearisome toward the end, even with solid performances and Coffield’s steady touch. Terry Meddows demonstrates a pleasing voice as well as expert comic timing as the hapless title character, a man filled with wonderment at the smallest details and befuddled by the slightest change in his routine. His performance nicely anchors the presentation.
Todd Schaefer is entertaining as the village leader who keeps his eyes on the prize of elevating his reputation, but at the same time meekly capitulates to his shrewish wife, a determined and vocally excellent Johanna Elkana-Hale.
Emily Baker gets to showcase her own good voice as well as fine comic flair as the long-suffering Mrs. Shlemiel, while Taylor Pietz and Mike Dowdy delightfully make for a wide-eyed and hopeful pair of tykes as the Shlemiel’s kids.
Antonio Rodriguez again demonstrates his chameleonic skills, unrecognizable as a wizened, wealthy baron from “Creve Coeur” as well as the dashing and dapper Rascal, while Anna Skidis and Keith Thompson team with Rodriguez or Dowdy as background villagers who make constant observations about the goings-on both by themselves and with their omnipresent and amusing sock puppets.
For something different and decidedly daffy, check out Shlemiel the First. Even if it drags to its ultimately upbeat conclusion, it’s fun seeing a klezmer musical comedy. How often does that happen?
Musical: Shlemiel the First
Group: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Studio Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive
Dates: May 22, 23, 25, 26, 29, 30, June 1, 2, 5, 6, 8, 9
Tickets: $35-$39; contact 442-3283 or newjewishtheatre.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb