A frequent criticism for many contemporary musicals—memorably satirized in Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along”—is that you don’t leave the theatre humming songs. Setting aside the myriad examples proving that critique wrong, “Goldstein”, a delightful, if too easy, new show that opened tonight at the Actors Temple Theatre Off-Broadway, is manna for those seeking a modern taste of the golden days of musical comedy.
“Goldstein” is a fast-moving musical collage of a single, rather ordinary immigrant family’s journey throughout 20th century America, stretching from grandmother’s migration from Russia in 1919 to grandson’s book talk in the 1990s. It is a small, simple, and tender show without explosive moments or big drama, pulsating, instead, with secrets, choices, losses, and regrets that ripple through generations and across decades—the kind of quiet drama more familiar to most people’s lives.
In “roughly 1995”, Louis Goldstein (Zal Owen) has published a “tell-all” memoir about his family, earning him both a Pulitzer Prize and the skepticism of his oldest living relative, Aunt Sherri (Megan McGinnis). Confronted by the point of view disputes inevitably inherent to the task of documenting family history—or any history for that matter—he traces back in time to his grandmother, Zelda’s (Amie Bermowitz) voyage across the Atlantic from Europe, where she falls in love with a fellow passenger, only to be parted at port. To escape an abusive cousin who treats her as hired help, Zelda marries Louie (Jim Stanek), a socialist, pacifist draft deserter who is later found out and briefly imprisoned. Zelda and Louie settle in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and have two children: the smart and ambitious Sherri and the middling Nathan (Aaron Galligan-Stierle). Nathan earns scars in World War II as their parents’ gendered expectations prevent Sherri from becoming a doctor. Eventually, Nathan meets and marries Eleanor (Sarah Beth Pfeifer), and they have two children: Louis, our author-protagonist, and Miriam (Julie Benko).
Along the way, nearly every character carries a secret or suffers a loss, but it turns out Louis' account is true. The poignancy of births and deaths, fast flying in this condensed story, are punctuated by use of the auditorium’s center aisle and a boom of blinding bright white light. The montage structure of the show calls for heavy employment of abstraction and meta-theatrical techniques, and when director Brad Rouse leans in to that approach, it is highly effective. The bland and near-monochromatically brown set is saved by a sharp lighting design that focuses attention, and the book by Charlie Schulman is sweet, though too many jokes fall flat and action can be too fast, expository, and stake-less, a challenge given the sheer amount of time, character development, and territory to cover in 90 minutes.
The ensemble give excellent performances, with Mr. Owen and Ms. Pfeifer (her song, “Visiting Your Mother”, stops the show) as standouts, but the real star of “Goldstein” is that lede-worthy score, a classic musical theatre sound firmly rooted in the 1960s and imbued with frequent echoes of early Sondheim and Herman, and heavy doses of Styne. Neither derivative nor pastiche, composer/lyricist Michael Roberts has managed to write a lovely score on par with that golden era, with its own confident style and character, and lyrics as clever and smart as the greats delivered.
Sondheim advises that the best, most rewarding lyrical rhymes are those in which the words have the same sounds, but different spellings, because they are not obvious and therefore, not expected, which causes the audience to listen closer and maintains that most important of theatrical elements: surprise. Mr. Roberts appears to have taken this lesson to heart, penning a score that bursts with unexpected rhymes, in songs that not only musicalize moments but also advance character and plot. Simple orchestration consisting of a two-player pit of piano, clarinet, and flute allows for the vocals of the ensemble to soar, highlighting the gorgeous melodies and lovely choral harmonies throughout. I hope there are plans for a cast recording, because Mr. Roberts score deserves to be immortalized.
While it may feel too small and pat at times, the intimacy of “Goldstein” only serves to underscore the universality of its themes and experiences. I fear, as the producers of “Fiddler on the Roof” once did, that “Goldstein” might be cabined as being a “Jewish” show meant for only Jewish audiences. That would be unfortunate, because while the characters are Jewish—and the show is performed in a Temple—Judaism is rarely central to the story. Instead, like “Fiddler”, “Goldstein” is ultimately about familial bonds amid changing times, and who can’t relate to that?
Bottom Line: “Goldstein” is an intimate, delightful, and tender new musical about familial bonds amid changing times; excellent performances and a classic 1960s musical theatre score make up for a lackluster book and underwhelming production values. Still, it is sweet, heartwarming, and relatable.
Actors Temple Theatre
339 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: April 5, 2018
Final Performance: open ended, on sale through July 29, 2018