A play with music, “Yentl” is a passion project, but not Barbra Streisand’s.
New Jewish Theatre's absorbing local premiere is thankfully not a carbon copy of the 1983 movie, which Streisand starred in, co-wrote, directed and produced. It's a more faithful adaptation of Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story, "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy," which blurs gender lines, explores freedom of expression and the struggle for equality in a historical context.
Singer collaborated with Leah Napolin on the dramatic adaptation staged in 1975, when the Women's Movement was blazing trails, and that's the foundation of this musical version, which has songs added by Jill Sobule, an indie singer-songwriter. She is most well-known for the pop-rock hit "I Kissed a Girl" in 1995.
Singer's original "Yentl" was a 'man's voice" in a woman's body, set in a Polish small town in the late 19th century. A young girl wants to study Talmud, which is forbidden in Old World Orthodox Jewish culture.
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Instead of conforming to society's expectations of women solely as wives, mothers and homemakers, she disguises herself as a man, joins a yeshiva — intense religious study — and starts to quench her thirst for knowledge. In the challenging lead role, the dynamic Shanara Gabrielle is fiery, passionate and sharp.
She display's Yentl's growth as a person in the guise of Anshel, and it's a delicate balancing act when she falls in love with her study partner Avigdor — a vigorous and mesmerizing Andrew Michael Neiman — and then pretty, sweet Hadass, the traditional daughter of a wealthy man. Taylor Steward is heartbreaking as a dutiful young woman fulfilling the role expected of her whose world is shattered. It is a beautifully calibrated performance — delicate, tender and strong.
Oh it's complicated all right. How Yentl grapples with her newfound life and the secrets she harbors is thoughtfully staged by director Edward Coffield. Ultimately, how we find our voices describes all of our journeys — the universal quest is underscored, as is different kinds of love.
How we have evolved is clearly on the minds of the audience, who laughed at such lines as "A learned woman is a monstrosity!"
There is much to like about this production. Besides the superb trio guiding us through a compelling yet complex story, a spirited ensemble fills multiple roles with panache. Belleville East alumnus Terry Meddows seamlessly moves from role to role — Yentl's father Red Todrus, Hadass's father, the village fool, and many others. And so does Amy Loui, comical as the pushy matchmaker and a shrill busybody-shoplifter, and Peggy Billo, as a controlling wife and mother, among others.
Jennifer Theby-Quinn stands out as the coarse widow Pesha, to paraphrase "Working Girl" — who has a head for business and a bod for sin — a domineering female weary of her intellectual husband Avigdor.
Energetic Will Bonfiglio, Luke Steingruby, Brendan Ochs and Jack Zanger are engaging in the young men roles.
Music was added to this play only a few years ago, and actually, would have been just fine without it, for it seems superfluous. A few music numbers, with contemporary phrases and titles, are mediocre.
But the performers — with strong, clear voices — deliver the group numbers with gusto and ballads with feeling. "I Hate Girl Things," which opens the show strikes a cheeky mood, while the guys have fun with the underlying meaning of "Jonathan and David."
The ensemble crisply moved to Sobule's eclectic mix of pop, folk, and Ashkenazi Jews' celebratory klezmer music, robustly choreographed by Ellen Isom. The music direction is superb under Charlie Mueller, with a tight three-piece combo — Aaron Doerr on guitar, Adam Anello on bass, and Dana Hotle on clarinet.
Margery and Peter Spack have designed a fluid Eastern European village for the set, with their mastery of detail, that's both striking and efficient. The lit candles in openings as evening fell added a nice touch, with Seth Jackson's lighting design strong as well.
Of course, 'Yentl" invites comparison to 'Fiddler on the Roof," as both their conflicts have much to do with "Tradition!" and the changing world around the characters.
"Yentl" brings out issues of feminism, gender and prejudice that resonate with today's audience, but not in a preachy or offensive way. With top-shelf talent and passionate conviction, New Jewish Theater's production entertains and makes us think.
- When: May 28, 29; June 1, 2, 4, 5
- Who: New Jewish Theatre
- Where: Wool Studio Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus
- Information: www.newjewishtheatre.org