NOTES: “Bar Mitzvah Boy”? Hadn’t heard of it.
The York Theatre Company’s 2018 “Musicals in Mufti” series offered its second of three staged concert readings of minor musicals composed by the great Jule Styne (“Gypsy”, “Funny Girl”) with “Bar Mitzvah Boy”, a show that you’ve probably never heard of—I certainly hadn’t—which played its final performance in the series today.
Based on a 1976 BBC1 teleplay by Jack Rosenthal, “Bar Mitzvah Boy” was British-born Jule Styne’s only musical composed to debut on the West End, where it opened in 1978, and closed after only 77 performances. This is the kind of musical that the “Mufti” series was made for—those in danger of never being heard from or seen again. A cast album exists, but is out of print and not available on any streaming service.
The show, set in the United Kingdom, follows a nervous and exasperated young Jewish boy, Eliot Green (a superb Peyton Lusk, “Falsettos”), as he and his middle class family prepare for his Bar Mitzvah ceremony and “dinner dance”.
A wisecracking but thoughtful boy at heart, Eliot is meditating on what this “passage” into manhood means, reflecting on the men in his life—his gruff, taxicab-driving father, Victor (Ned Eisenberg); his older sister’s docile boyfriend, Harold (Ben Fankhauser); and his perpetually optimistic grandfather, “Grandad” (Tim Jerome)—concluding that each has compromised in living up to the demands of the Torah and the expectations of adulthood.
When Eliot bolts from the Synagogue on his special day, the occasion painstakingly planned by his uber-neurotic mother, Rita (a hilarious Lori Wilner), is disastrously upended before Eliot learns a good lesson with the help of his loving-but-she’d-never-admit-it sister, Lesley (Julie Benko), and a score-settling classmate named Denise (Casey Watkins).
The only prior appearance of “Bar Mitzvah Boy” in New York was a 1987 production at the 92nd Street Y that set the piece in 1940s Brooklyn. A 2016 revival in London restored the original setting and was given a new book by David Thompson (“The Scottsboro Boys”), which was then used for this “Mufti” presentation (“in street clothes, without the trappings of a full production”).
The story is charming and sweet—it’s easy to see why its creators jumped at the opportunity to adapt it for the stage—but the resulting musical is also long-winded, featuring a mostly-unremarkable, late-career score by Mr. Styne, whose melodic juices appear to have dried up by the 1970s. He’d write three more musicals, all obscure flops, before his death in 1994.
The lyrics by Don Black (“Sunset Boulevard”) are clever and witty, but few songs advance the plot in any meaningful way, and too many get in the way of getting to the point. The revised book by Mr. Thompson, however, is a standout, sketching full-bodied characters and offering a smooth procession of jokes without relying too much on easy stereotypes. With some additional musical trimming, “Bar Mitzvah Boy” is a property that might find success in a small commercial venue.
For now, the last show in this year’s Styne series is “Subways Are For Sleeping” (1961), which has never been performed (anywhere!) since closing on Broadway in 1962. Phyllis Newman, who starred in the original production and is the widow of book-writer and lyricist Adolph Green, is working on an edited book for this special production. Performances start on Saturday.
“Bar Mitzvah Boy”
Musicals in Mufti
York Theatre Company
619 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10022
Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Final Performance: February 18, 2018