Sunday, February 7, 2016

Review: Stars of David

Review of Philadelphia Theatre Company's World Premiere Musical Stars of David, based on Abigail Pogrebin's book of interviews with Jewish celebrities, reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield.

Review: Stars of David


By Wendy Rosenfield


Philadelphia Theatre Company’s world premiere musical Stars of David, based on Abigail Pogrebin’s collection of interviews, asks a whole lot of famous people a single question: How do you feel about being Jewish? The net result of those answers is a survey of a dozen public figures whose attitudes toward Judaism range from ambivalence to outright chauvinism.

This is less a celebration of being Jewish in America than a window onto a splintered minority — many of whom, despite being defined by religion, find their religion’s teachings largely irrelevant, and identify with being Jewish mostly through empty rituals and food. In the staged version of Pogrebin’s work (as opposed to its printed entity), nearly everything of historical consequence in Jewish life seems to have disappeared. There’s no mention of the Holocaust and only passing reference made to immigration or Israel. Even the breast cancer gene gets shut out. This can’t be good for the Jews.

Stars of David director Gordon Greenberg borrows a page from the musical adaptation of Studs Terkel’s book Working — which he revised and directed in Chicago — distilling each segment into a representative song. But the combination of these bold-faced names — Aaron Sorkin, Edgar Bronfman, Joan Rivers, and Fran Drescher among them — with a who’s who of Jewish composers and lyricists (24 of them!) ends up diluting rather than distilling the interviews.

A few songwriters are well-matched to their subject, such as Michael Friedman’s characteristically cerebral, funny take on playwright Tony Kushner, “Horrible Seders” (“Before we start, I have to say / being Jewish was invaluable preparation for being gay”), and Tom Kitt’s heartbreaking “As If I Weren’t There,” which relates Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s exclusion from the minyan (a prayer group of 10 men) at her mother’s funeral to her career in shaping the nation’s laws. But others, such as Jeanine Tesori and Susan Birkenhead’s “The Women Who Had No Names,” showcase their own sentimental style over that of their well-known subject, here, feminist Gloria Steinem.

Charles Busch’s book presents another problem. Its framework is a fictionalized version of Pogrebin that brings in a shticky, shlocky take on Jewish women that’s completely appropriate for a campy Busch endeavor, but all wrong beside a thoughtful examination of Jewish identity. At least its five performers, particularly Donna Vivino’s triumphant, balcony-rattling Drescher, have enough chutzpah to embody so many outsized personalities.

In the lobby on opening night, more than a few audience members exclaimed, “I hated it!” All Jews, all hating a musical about being Jewish. That doesn’t happen very often. At the same time, as the saying goes, two Jews, three opinions; plenty of others found it delightful. I left wanting more, but more of what I didn’t see represented onstage.

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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