SHLEMIEL Opens Tonight!

Haven’t blogged in over a week. Why? Been in tech for our first musical of the season. And threw my back out shoveling soaking wet leaves that the city forgot to pick up! So am moving a lot more slowly, while the show, and its momentum, pick up more and more speed. SHLEMIEL is selling like hot-cakes! Since the postcards hit on the same day as the first Guide ad in the Post, we’re seeing sales like we haven’t seen in advance of an opening since, well… since one of our last big hits of two seasons ago! With two Pay-What-You-Can Previews under our belt (last night and the night before) I can hear an extremely positive word-of-mouth coming from audiences leaving the theater. It’s nice to see so many happy people! And grateful that we’ve brought these stories — of Chelm — and this music — of American inflected Klezmer — back.

And yet, with the passing of the directorial baton from Nick Olcott to Michael Russotto, we’ve lost a couple days for a project that we knew was going to be under-rehearsed from the get-go. And with the band fighting to get in any real rehearsal time at all, this ace collection of musicians is still trying to steal precious minutes to figure out levels and who’s doing what-where. Last night was a promising series of breakthroughs on many fronts. And yet we still wish we had a lot more time. Isn’t that always the way?

Today I lunch with Bob Brustein, in from Cambridge for opening night. Did I ever share with you his wonderful essay on the making of SHLEMIEL? Let me do so now.

But first we’ll reference the wonderful Washington Post article that Dame Jane Horwitz filed yesterday in her Backstage column.

Grateful that she got to speak with so many different artists on the show – all of whom are extremely strong.

So more on SHLEMIEL the show, the event, the concert, the good time, in the days ahead. And wish us good things – break a leg, knock ‘em dead, oy gevalt — on our big opening tonight!

Jane Horwitz

What a ‘Shlemiel’
Funny, she doesn’t look shrewish.
But Donna Migliaccio plays the cranky Yenta Pesha in “Shlemiel the First,” at Theater J through Jan. 20. The klezmer musical is adapted by Robert Brustein from a play by Isaac Bashevis Singer.
When Yenta Pesha’s husband tells her he no longer finds her blintzes tasty, the big-voiced Migliaccio belts an “oy gevalt” that slides up to a high F-sharp. Her character, the actress says, “is uncomfortably like me. She’s opinionated, she’s loud, she’s bossy and she knows she’s right and has absolutely no problem telling everybody.”
Yenta Pesha is certain that all the men in Chelm are idiots — especially when they send the simple workman Shlemiel on a trek to spread the teachings of their befuddled rabbi. Shlemiel gets turned around and winds up back in Chelm, but he’s convinced he has come upon a duplicate town, including a woman just like his wife, but whom he likes better.
“Because it is so folkloric, the characters are so broadly drawn, the danger is to condescend to the material, to just make it cutesy,” director Nick Olcott says. Singer’s original story “really put a heart in the piece — the rediscovery of Shlemiel and Mrs. Shlemiel. The rediscovery of their love is something very profound.”
Thomas Howley, who plays Shlemiel, sees him as an “ambitionless soul” and the show as one in which “you can try so many different things . . . the goal is to go past the edge and fall off and enjoy the fall.”
Says Amy McWilliams, who plays Shlemiel’s wife: “If we’re having fun, if the piece is done in a way that honors the silliness of it, then I think we’re traveling in the right direction.”
Daniel Hoffman, a light of the klezmer movement with his bands Davka and Klez-X, plays the fiddle and leads the band for the show. (Pianist Derek Bowley is overall music director.) The score, by Hankus Netsky, with additional music by Zalmen Mlotek, uses the klezmer style that evolved in New York in the 1920s and ’30s, Hoffman says. “So there’s already a jazz influence . . . but klezmer has always been very flexible and has always absorbed lots of styles,” he adds, citing, in a short history of the genre, influences from the Ottoman Empire to Romania.
In concert readings of “Shlemiel” last season at Theater J, Olcott recalls, “the moment the band started playing . . . people would get this glow. . . . This music really touches people just where they live.”