NJT offers stunning new version of ‘Yentl’

The cast of the New Jewish Theatre production of ‘Yentl.’  Photos: Eric Woolsey

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize Laureate and acclaimed novelist and short story writer, made no secret of his intense dislike for the 1983 film version of his short story, “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy.” Singer reportedly tried to get his name removed from the credits for the film, which was co-written, produced and directed by the brilliant but scene-devouring Barbra Streisand. 

Instead of getting inside the head of Yentl, a Polish Jewish girl who disguises herself as a male in order to study Torah and Talmud at an all-male yeshiva, the movie is a non-stop showcase for the talents of Streisand—at the expense of the story. Singer, himself, had co-written a dramatic stage version of “Yentl” with Leah Napolin, and that version has been greatly enhanced with musical numbers and lively choreography by the New Jewish Theatre for the final show of its 2015-2016 season. The NJT production of “Yentl” equals or surpasses the Streisand film in character development, tenderness and overall entertainment value.

Splendidly directed by Edward Coffield, the production features powerful performances by Shanara Gabrielle as Yentl and Andrew Michael Neiman as her study buddy and best friend Avidgor. Also buoying the proceedings is an ensemble cast of nine players in various roles. Chances are this fresh but faithful update would likely have pleased Singer, who died in 1991.

Gabrielle is pitch perfect in the challenging lead role of Yentl, who takes the name Anshel and disguises herself as a male yeshiva student. She joins with Avigdor on a journey to the closed-off, small Jewish town of Bechev, which is renowned for its Talmudic scholarship and charismatic rabbis and teachers. Yentl is described by her own father as having the face of a woman but the soul of a man. 

As Yentl/Anshel, Gabrielle exudes a gender-bender magnetism and attractiveness.  Her facial expressions perfectly reflect the myriad of feelings her complex character experiences, as she is powerfully drawn to the serious study of Torah despite centuries of patriarchal discouragement of women taking up Torah scholarship.

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Yentl and Avigdor are not only close study partners, but also become self-described best-friends, consciously comparing their friendship “beyond the love of woman” that is described in the Book of Samuel between the future King David and Jonathan, the son of King Saul. There is a clear and observable erotic subtext to the mutual attraction the two feel towards one another, which is celebrated in the song “David and Jonathan,” performed with gusto by the cast. The lively, humorous and athletically danced musical numbers are the contribution of Jill Soluble, a prolific singer-songwriter who lends her considerable talent to the NJT production. 

Taylor Steward delivers a knockout performance in the demanding role as Hadass (she also plays other parts). Hadass had been engaged to marry Avigdor who considers her to be his bashert, or destined life’s partner. But Hadass’ harshly controlling and judgmental mother Frumka (Peggy Billo) forces the couple into breaking the engagement.

As luck or destiny would have it, Yentl, in his adopted role as the male yeshiva student Anshel, becomes romantically involved with Hadass. In doing so, he feels tremendous pangs of guilt and confusion, worrying that he is betraying both his best friend and the beautiful, emotionally traumatized woman to whom he becomes betrothed. 

Sobule’s songs are a fusion of independent folk, rock and East European klezmer music.  In contrast to a conventional musical such as the one Streisand produced, this version uses the tunes and instrumental music to underscore and make more vivid the interactions and feelings of the characters. Musical director Charlie Mueller and choreographer Ellen Isom deserve kudos for both the music and the high-energy choreography, with the dancers navigating the beautifully designed set without a misstep or mishap.

Peter and Margery Spack also merit special applause for their scenic design and artistic imaginings. A major power outage the afternoon of the Wednesday show delayed the start of the play that evening, but the high-energy enthusiasm, superb acting, singing and dancing by the cast, and the work of musicians Aaron Doerr on guitar, Adam Anello on bass and Dana Hotle on clarinet round out the show as a highly entertaining evening of theater.

At nearly two hours, the production could have dragged in less capable hands, but the skilled direction, music and acting made the time glide by.