--The Musical "

Music By Joanne Baker
Book and Lyrics by Pamela Berger
Adapted from the novella by Abraham Cahan
Directed by Tim Banker
Music direction by Brian Soucek
Lara Classics at the Robsham Theatre, Boston College--- January 21-25th

 Reviewed by G.L. Horton
Pamela Berger has decided to fashion a musical out of material from Abraham Cahan that she previously adapted  for  an independent film, her 1989 award winner "The Imported Bridegroom"   And why not? The girl-gets-boy but-he's-not -what- she-thinks-she- wants  story line is an engaging one, used in many successful musicals. The issues of religious and cultural identity conflicts between first and second generation immigrants is still a matter of concern for a country still struggling with what it means to be a nation of  immigrants. Klezmer music is very popular in Boston right now, and a small scale musical that features one of the skillful Klezmer consorts that abound in the area has immediate appeal.   Joanne Baker, who is responsible for "Bridegroom's" music,  is the piano and accordion player for  Boston Klezet, and that group served as orchestra for the show's premiere.  (The score also has  musical numbers by Pamela Berger and William Wise.)  The Klezet were wonderful, worth the price of the ticket all by themselves. Boston College--Berger is a professor on the B.C. faculty-- has a fine facility in Robsham Theatre, and "Bridegroom"'s staging could exploit all the picturesque qualities of  turn-of-the-century Boston's distinctive folkways. Designers Jill Hendrickson, Dena Popienko, and Jacqueline Reid  provided sets, costumes, and lighting worthy of Off-Broadway, which is presumably where the show intends to settle in for a run before becoming a college and community theatre staple. 

The plot of "Imported Bridegroom" goes like this: Asriel Stroon has succeeded in business in the New World, building up a tidy little real estate empire in working-class Boston.  But although Asriel is is proud of his hard work and cleverness, he is not immune to one of his tenants' accusation that what is good business practice in America may turn out to be a damnably sinful lack of charity when he faces the throne of Judgment in the Afterlife.  Asriel has the bright idea that he should return to Pravily, the town where he was born, and find a worthy Talmudic scholar to marry to his daughter Flora, his only child and heir. That way his fortune will be a blessing rather than a curse, his business dealings turned to good deeds because they will be supporting his holy son-in-law.  Asriel sets off for the impoverished settlement, locates a bachelor, Shaya, whom the town reveres as a genius, and for a princely sum wins the popular youth as his daughter's bridegroom.  When Flora sees the "present" her father has brought her, she is horrified.  Shaya's traditional dress and manners strike her as uncouth. Flora has dreams of marrying a doctor or lawyer-- preferably one who graduated from Harvard.  Shaya's task is to win Flora's approval without losing Asriel's.

Tim Banker's staging  kept the multi-scened action fluid, and he got vivid and well balanced performances from the brace of experienced local character actors like Sheldon Chandler who made up the core of his cast. Annette Miller as Mrs. Birnbaum, repeating her movie role but this time bursting into song, proved once again that she can put more acting in a syllable or a note than most people manage in a paragraph or an aria.  Bob Dolan in the central role of Mr.Stroon did his alma mater, B.C., proud, demonstrating real star quality.  The younger performers of the ensemble had some trouble with accents and differentiated movement when doubling or tripling roles,  but they looked attractive in their changes of costume and sang well. The romantic leads were, well, romantic: Angelique Gagnon beautiful in her sumptuous costumes, and aristocratic in her bearing as the American princess she must appear to be to the overwhelmed greenhorn, Shaya: John King quirky and endearing as he vacillates between feeling like the Prince of his little Pravily pond and the Frog he is in the eyes of of his haughty intended.  The couple sing well enough that one longs to hear them together in a real love duet.
The Imported Bridegroom is charming, and has the potential to be a satisfying little musical.  There are a few  problems to be dealt with in rewrites, though, before it can make a bid for a place in the pantheon.  First, "Bridegroom" sounds, both in dialogue and in musical expression, just too much like "Fiddler on the Roof".  "Like", but not "better than", which is why this is a problem.  The most interesting numbers, "Prologue" and "She'll Take Him" are the first in their respective acts, and rather than gathering forces to be resolved in a Finale, each act just sort of runs out.  The ensemble is brought on stage at the end to add volume but not emotional complexity.

Second,  the script sets up a religious conflict, but doesn't take it seriously enough to work out the specific terms of it for each of the parties.   Asriel and Shaya explain themselves, to the other characters and to the audience. But what does Flora feel?  Repulsed by Shaya's "foreigness", yes.  But how does she feel about God, about Jewish tradition and duty?  Three quarters of the way through, Shaya and Flora sing separately about the marriage they will share, and reveal that they see themselves living with a spouse who acts in ways that their real betrothed would find alien, and perhaps even abhorrent.  This song is good for a knowing chuckle from the audience, but positioned late as it is and dealing with vital matters that are never negotiated between the pair, it works against the happy ending. (One way to make room for these matters might be to shrink the section that takes place in Pravily, and treat what happens there as the story Asriel and Shaya tell Flora and the housekeeper, Mrs. Birnbaum, to try to convince them that Shaya is the perfect man for Flora, a genius, a treasure. This might also tie in the double wedding subplot).

Third, Berger's lyrics are clunky.  At least they are real lyrics, and not some prosaic substitute.  But some polishing is in order, some play with assonance and internal rhyme to alleviate the  frequent thud as some all too predictable or far too improbable word is hammered into its end stopped place.  But such a good time was had by all concerned during this brief appearance at B.C., that the creators should be eager to polish the show up and ready it to move on to a longer run in a more visible venue.