The Golem of Havana, Music by Salomon Lerner, Lyrics by Len Schiff, book by Michel Hausmann. Directed by Michel Hausmann. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"When a thread comes undone. . ."
I am reluctant to merely praise the new musical at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage, "The Golem of Havana." Reluctant because while I enjoyed the show immensely I feel that it is not yet ready for prime time. The Musical Theatre Lab, under the direction of William Finn, has turned out a great many shows that I have thorougly enjoyed and a few that I have found not worthy of consideration. However, the good have outweighed the not so good and this new one is firmly in the former camp, very worthy indeed to be seen and heard and enjoyed. But it's just not ready, just not right.
For one thing we are asked to choose between Battista and Castro and neither person, neither party, was exactly choice. Set in Cuba in 1958 this musical is rhythmic and dancable and filled with action and emotion and sensitivities. Mambo, Tango, latin rhythms with Jewish-toned tunes, fill the theater with an abandon that is often marvelous - though not memorable; not one tune sticks with you - while extolling tragedy and disaster on all sides. The songs are all important to the story and they are well written. They just don't have that theatrical hit quality yet but many of them could.
"Yamaya," an invocation to an ancient VooDoo Goddess is lovely, almost haunting, except that it is forgettable. "Take a Chance", a duet for Pinchas Frankel and Arturo Perez is delightful. "The Needle and the Thread" for tailors Frankel and Battista works well for both men but I cannot hum it. The almost love duet for Rebecca and Teo, "That's Where I Belong" is charming but not moving. Yutka's "Nothing in Your Hands" in the second act was moving but not memorable. It is this way throughout the show. Good, but not great.
The story: A young Jewish girl envisions a savior for her country, Cuba, based on the Golem legends of her family's homeland in Europe, a world they left after world war two in order to found a new family in a new land, Cuba. They find they have traded one old monstrous legacy for a new one. The girl is creative and, at 14, a bit of a romantic. She is a Jewish version of The Girl in The Fantasticks. Her romantic notions are those of a budding artist and the realities she hopes to command in her work and her life are not reachable in her world. The story, conceived on the historically sad time for Cuba's history, is one of extreme sadness tempered with the adaptation of legendary events in the current day-to-day occurrences of a deeply troubled arena of war.
The girl, Rebeca Frankel, is played by Julie Benko with a sincerity that is ultimately moving but is sometimes overwhelming as only the emotional outpourings of a young teenager can be. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though. Rebecca's story is a brief episode in a long life of creativity and one she will relive in her work, to be sure. However Benko acts and sings with strength and a realism that makes it impossible to ignore the difficulties she brings into existence for her family. Rebecca is the core of the work. Benko makes her loveable, likeable and tremendously frustrating for her ardor is only exceeded by her imagination.
As her parents, Yutka and Pinchas, the company has cast two remarkably good actors, Jacqueline Antaramian and Gordon Stanley, one new to the company and one normally cast in supporting, often small, roles. Stanley is remarkable, turning in a performance that would make Perchik, the tailor in "Fiddler on the Roof" seem truly the progenitor of Pinchas, the tailor. He is only slightly a Jew in the classic sense but his performance as a good husband and faithful father is both charming and effete. Here is a delicate soul, a servant of many but retaining his place as head of household, who has a deep need to be respected by the outside world. It is very nice work by Gordon Stanley. Mama Yutka is a different sort entirely. She is haunted by the death of her sister at the hands of the Nazis. She is hard on her only child, wishing Rebecca to be more a realist than a dreamer. When she gets her wish, she silently wants to not be responsible for getting what she wished. Antaramian gives this confusing role everything she can but it isn't enough. One of the things holding back this show is this character's inability to be honest about her motivations. Antaramian sings beautifully and acts the role as written, but I feel that this is one part that really needs to be looked at much more carefully by the authors.
Their housekeeper is beautifully played and sung by Rheaume Crenshaw who brings to the role all of the character-sensitivity it needs. Her son Teo, a rebel in Castro's army, is grandly played by Ronald Alexander Peet. Teo's need for love and communication is perfectly etched by Peet and his return to an ideology that may be ill-conceived is a chilling moment in the play.
Danny Bolero makes Arturo a charming cad and his choices felt right. Felipe Gorostiza plays a recognizable Batista to the hilt and Ari Stachel as his aide, Sanchez, is handsomely chilling. The rest of the company do what they do with style, talent and abilities outside the scope of the work they have to do. The band, a sextet, play the score for all its worth in the composer's own arrangement.
The author's stage direction does all that it can to make the play he wrote work. Hausmann leaves the work of the playwright to direct and would have profited from a new set of eyes on the piece, perhaps demanding changes that, as author, he had not known were needed and he had, sadly, no director to instruct him as to the play's needs. This is a danger in a work like this one, so complex and so important in relating a personal story in the middle of a much larger political context.
Scenic Designer Edwin Erminy has done a nice job on the small St. Germain Stage. Arnulfo Maldonado has provided fine period costumes, stylized where necessary and character perfect at all times. Mary Louise Geiger has provided some fine lighting, particularly the seashore lighting. Patrick Calhoun needs to learn how to balance singers and musicians as a sound designer although his special sound effects, some supplied by the human voices of the cast, were superb.
Some years ago I praised highly a new musical in Williamstown entitled "Party, Come Here." I offered its future to a Broadway that didn't want it. In the case of this new show, "The Golem of Havana" I don't know what to say. It is a good show that needs work. It should have a future if the authors can rebalance the work to provide songs you can recall afterward and a political/personal balance that give us characters we can identify with and hope for and get in line with as the show moves forward through its plot. This show has great potential. I enjoyed it and would gladly see new editions of it as it grows. I hope it grows. I hope so - a lot.
Julie Benko; photo: Kevin Sprague
Gordon Stanley and Jacqueline Antaramian; photo: Kevin Sprague
Julie Benko and Ronald Alexander Peet; photo: Kevin Sprague
The Golem of Havana plays on the St. Germain Stage in the Barrington Stage Company' Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center located at 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA through August 10. For information or tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line at www.barringtonstageco.org.