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Theatre in Review: A Letter to Harvey Milk (Theatre Row)

Adam Heller, Julia Knitel, Cheryl Stern. Photo: Russ Rowland

Harry Weinberg, a retired kosher butcher and the protagonist of A Letter to Harvey Milk, recalls how he always kept a jar of schmaltz and an unsliced loaf of rye bread on his store's counter. Why? "If they want free schmaltz, they gotta slice the bread," he says. "And most people don't bother. So, you look like a mensch, and every night you take the rye bread home for dinner." The creators of this musical would, most likely, not be welcome customers at Harry's, for they are only too willing to spread schmaltz all over everything, as thick as they can. This is an old-fashioned laughter-and-tears exercise that combines wheezy gags with weepy revelations and the tasteless exploitation of certain world-historical events. If you see this one, you'll need to have your cholesterol checked.

Harry, a widower, lives a sedate existence, yet he doesn't sleep too well at night, what with all the conversations he is forever having with his late wife, Frannie. Popping up out of their bed, she wonders how long she has been gone; when Harry tells her it has been seven years, she cracks, "Time flies when you're dead!" Frannie inquires about the nightmares that have been plaguing Harry. "Do I have to paint a picture?" he asks. "Yeah!" she insists. "I'm no Shylock Holmes." Molly Picon, in her heyday, would have been stumped by that one.

But you're probably wondering about that title. The year is 1986, the city is San Francisco, and, looking for something to do, Harry drops in at his local Jewish Community Center, where he meets Barbara Katsef, who nicely coerces him into signing up for a creative writing class. One of his first assignments is to write a letter to someone from his past; he pens a missive to his late friend Harvey Milk. Seems Harry and Harvey had a kind of father-son relationship; Harry even kept a jar of jelly beans, Harvey's favorite, for his friend's visits. Barbara, a lesbian, is thrilled to make the acquaintance of an intimate of the great gay martyr. (She came out to her family when Milk died.) Meanwhile, Frannie, kibitzing from the astral plane, looks on jealously, thinking that Harry is seeing a younger woman. It's typical of the show's methodology that a melancholy ballad about Milk's murder and the teeming street procession that followed also serves to wise up Frannie about Harry and Barbara. As the number ends, Frannie murmurs, "For Harvey, may he rest in peace," adding, loudly, "Thank God you didn't shtup a shiksa!"

And so it goes, tsuris alternating with shtick for most of the ninety-minute running time. Barbara, whose Connecticut-based parents play down their Jewish heritage and have no use for a lesbian daughter, gloms onto Harry, who schools her in Jewish culture. The lessons include a trip to a deli, where, in a number called "Turning the Tables," the wisecracking waiters ply them with more terrible jokes. Frannie, who has no use for gays, runs amok in a number titled "What a Shanda," in which she notes that "God said 'Be fruitful,' not a fruit," adding that young people today "Do as they please, buy Christmas trees/With Santa Claus, they're flirted/Don't wait up for the Messiah/He converted!"

The entirely manufactured conflict comes to light when Harry turns on Barbara, who is open about her sexual orientation, furiously demanding that she adopt a more closeted attitude. They have a major falling out, which cues a flashback to a Nazi concentration camp and revelations about Harry and another inmate and the Sophie's Choice-type decision that has haunted him ever since (and which not even Frannie was privy to). If you haven't enjoyed this musical's manipulations up to this point, you're likely to be furious at its shameless tear-jerking use of the Holocaust.

It took four contributors -- Ellen M. Schwartz, Cheryl Stern, Laura I. Kramer, and Jerry James -- to come up with the book, which, on second thought, makes a kind of sense, since the dialogue sounds like something thrown together in the writers' room of a mediocre television sitcom. The songs are either achingly sincere or loaded with the kind of jokes referred to above. Under Evan Pappas' direction, the cast performs in a variety of styles. Adam Heller, a Broadway pro, underplays Harry, a largely successful approach that lets us appreciate the forces that continue to torment him in old age. (When Barbara asks him if there is a Yiddish word for lesbian, his perfectly timed response lands the show's biggest real laugh.) As Barbara, Julia Knitel has a nice, easy charm that convinces us that she and Harry could become odd-couple friends. Stern's Frannie is a fest of mugging and oy-vey gestures. Michael Bartoli is solid in his few appearances as Harvey. Jeremy Greenbaum makes the most of a cameo as Harry's friend from the death camps. Aury Krebs, as Barbara's ex-girlfriend, is stuck with a dull ballad titled "Love is a Woman."

David L. Arsenault's two-level set, done in the style of San Francisco's Victorian row houses, is okay without being especially evocative, but Christopher Akerlind's lighting confidently alternates color washes with white-light looks to realize various time frames and emotional states. Debbi Hobson's costumes recall the mid nineteen eighties while avoiding caricature. David M. Lawson's sound design is generally clear, but there are several harsh passages.

A Letter to Harvey Milk, which is based on a short story by Leslea Newman, is filled to the brim with good will, but it tries much too hard, overreaching in a way that comes across as unpleasantly calculating. You don't have to be a Shylock Holmes to figure out where it went wrong. --David Barbour

(7 March 2018)

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