THEATER: “The Golem of Havana”: The Mystical Musical at Barrington Stage Musical Theatre Lab [Berkshire on Stage]

Julie Benko and Ronald Alexander Peet. (photo: Kevin Sprague)

Julie Benko and Ronald Alexander Peet. (photo: Kevin Sprague)

Theater review by Gail M. Burns and Larry Murray

Larry Murray: The creators of The Golem of Havana deserve to light up some nice big Cuban cigars, because they have a lot to celebrate following the world premiere of their smash new musical. And those associated with William Finn’s Musical Theatre Lab should be popping some champagne corks over at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield right about now. They have told a complex story exceptionally well.

This tale of a Hungarian-Jewish family living in Batista’s 1950’s Cuba conflates history with a legendary protective golem. The combination sets up all the drama one could ask for in a musical, a story replete with good fortune and deadly reversals as Fidel Castro brings revolution to the Frankel family. To dramatize the story, the company uses everyday realism mixed with nighmarish surrealism; and the memories of a bright and imaginative young girl mixed with the mysticism of Jewish and Santeria traditions.

Gail M. Burns: This is an original story, based on the composer and lyricist’s personal experiences in Venezuela. The American media keeps us so very ignorant of events on the whole South American continent that the creative team was wise to move the story to Ricky Ricardo’s pre-Castro Cuba, not only for us Ugly Americans but also, as I understand, for their own political safety as artists.

Larry: What I most liked about The Golem of Havana is the music itself, and when it is brought to life in songs that move the plot along it has me singing its praises. Much of it is delivered in snippets, as when first Laszlo and later Yutka sings; “I had no choice, I bear no blame, I had my family, You’d do the same” Or when Teo laments “Rich Men’s Sons, Poor Men’s Sons.” Written by Salomon Lerner, the music is a colorful tapestry of sounds, often distinctly Cuban and Caribbean, and at others clearly Jewish with Klezmer influences. The scene dictates the style. It is at its best when the two meet, sort of in the middle, and the songs become a blend of the two cultures. Lyricist Len Schiff wastes no time in finding words to the winsome melodies that either express the characters feelings, or advance the plot, sometimes both at the same time.

Gail: The music is lively, melodic, and beautiful. And eminently danceable. Choreographer Marcos Santana blends the dancing seamlessly into the characters’ movement. He is likely also responsible for the striking shadow work that opens the shows and which helps anchor the ancient tale of Rabbi Loeb and the Golem of Prague in its time and place.

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