By Wendy Rosenfield
FOR THE INQUIRER
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.