‘Shlemiel’ is no fool in NJT Production

From left are cast members Anna Skidis, Todd Schaefer, Johanna Elkana-Hale and Keith Thompson.

By Gerry Kowarsky, Special to the Jewish Light

Some of the names connected with “Shlemiel the First” are much better known than the klezmer musical itself. The script is based on a play by the Nobel Prize-winning author, Isaac Bashevis Singer. The musical was conceived and adapted by Robert Brustein, the longtime theater critic of “The New Republic” and a distinguished producer and educator.

“Shlemiel the First” was set to open in New York in time to be eligible for the 1995 Tony Awards. That production was delayed and eventually shelved. There have been a few subsequent stagings, but the show has never reached Broadway.

We may never learn whether “Shlemiel the First” could succeed in a Broadway house, but the show’s charms are ideally suited to the intimate space of the Jewish Community Center’s Wool Studio Theatre. The current production there by the New Jewish Theatre is delightful.

The title character is the beadle (i.e., the shammes) in Chelm, the legendary village of fools in Jewish folklore. When the men of Chelm want to extol their wisdom to the rest of the world, they choose Shlemiel as their emissary. His journey is supposed to last three years, but an encounter with a rascal turns Shlemiel around and brings him back to Chelm shortly after his departure. 

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Upon finding himself in familiar surroundings, Shlemiel leaps past the obvious conclusion that he has returned home. Instead, he believes he has discovered a second Chelm inhabited by doubles of all the people he knows. This interpretation leads to trouble when an attraction develops between Shlemiel and his wife, Tryna Rytza, who both believe she is the wife of the absent Shlemiel the Second (the one who supposedly lives in the duplicate Chelm).

Under Edward Coffield’s sure-handed direction, the NJT cast performs in a broad style that is a perfect fit for the script’s humor. Terry Meddows’ sweet, sad Shlemiel is exactly what his name suggests. He is impossible not to like in spite of his failings. As Tryna Rytza, Emily Baker leaves no doubt about how hard it is to be married to a Shlemiel. She and Meddows bring emotional depth as well as humor to the couple’s predicament when they think that acting on their feelings would be adultery.

Todd Schaefer makes it clear why Gronam Ox, the leader of Chelm’s wise men, has no wisdom. In a character so full of himself, how could there be room for anything else? His wife, Yenta Pesha, is the most sensible and formidable person in Chelm, so Johanna Elkana-Hale’s commanding presence and operatic voice are just right for the character.

Taylor Pietz and Mike Dowdy are totally convincing as Shlemiel’s children and also shine as citizens of Chelm, along with Antonio Rodriguez, Anna Skidis, and Keith Thompson. As the aptly named Chaim Rascal, Rodriguez exudes charm so boundless that it seems perfectly natural for him to embrace members of the band and the audience. 

The brightly colored scenic design by Margery and Peter Spack alludes to the literary origin of the script by using oversized books as the steps leading up Shlemiel’s house. The production gains additional sparkle from Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes, Kimberly Klearman’s lighting, and JT Ricroft’s choreography. Music director Henry Palkes leads a rousing klezmer band that features Alyssa Avery’s violin, Adam Anello’s bass, and the swinging, wailing clarinet of Dana Hotle.