Monday, February 16, 2015

"Stars of David" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Center Theater

In 2007, journalist Abigail Pogrebin interviewed dozens of famous Jewish-Americans about their experiences being Jewish in this country, and compiled them into a book called Stars of David. People like Senator Al Franken, actresses Lauren Bacall and Sarah Jessica Parker, actors Jason Alexander and Dustin Hoffman, director Stephen Spielberg, and playwright Wendy Wassserstein. A book of interviews does not exactly scream "musical theater," yet it has been turned into just that, with much success, and Minnesota Jewish Theater Company has brought it to Minnesota. It's not so much a musical as it is a musical review, featuring four actors telling these personal stories in the form of a dozen or so new original songs by various successful musical theater composers. The result is an entertaining, educational, funny, and poignant 90 minutes of musical storytelling.

Bryan Porter, Daisy Macklin Skarning, Laura B. Adams,
and David Carey (photo by Sarah Whiting)
Director Michael Kissin has assembled a great cast and arranged the show nicely in the circular stage space designed by Michael Hoover. Names of the book's subjects are projected onto the set, along with a brief photo as each one is introduced. The onstage four-piece band directed by Kevin Dutcher sounds terrific on these varied songs. Cast members Laura B. Adams, David Carey, Bryan Porter, and Daisy Macklin Skarning, dressed in black to more easily slip into the skins of these famous people, are all very engaging with beautiful voices. Singing solo, with or without backup, or in group numbers, these four singer/actors tell stories that are funny, tragic, moving, or all three.

Highlights include:
  • Bryan sings a cute and then sad story about how Leonard Nimoy's childhood magician dreams are crushed by bigotry.
  • As my favorite TV writer Aaron Sorkin, David sings a funny song about "Smart People."
  • Laura has the unenviable job of being both Fran Drescher and Joan Rivers, two of the most recognizable voices in show business, and she pulls them both off. Joan's song is a sweet one in which she conveys the feeling of being able to just be herself on the "High Holy Days," and Fran's song is as funny and determined as she is, "What Do They Know?"
  • Leave it to Next to Normal composer Tom Kitt to write a melody that made me cry, along with lyrics by book writer Abigail Pogrebin. "As If I Weren't There" tells the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg being unable to grieve her mother in the traditional way she wanted, beautifully sung by Daisy.
  • Another familiar musical theater composer, Duncan Sheik, wrote a song that's very reminiscent of his most famous work, Spring Awakening. "The Darkening Blue" features those same hauntingly gorgeous harmonies, as it relates Kenneth Cole's struggle with how to pass on his heritage to his children, who are being raised as Christians.
  • In addition to telling his own story, Michael Feinstein wrote the music and lyrics for playwright Tony Kushner's "Horrible Seders," a fast, funny, and poignant song well sung by Bryan.
  • Laura and Daisy sing Gloria Steinem's song, which is of course powerful and meaningful and woman-affirming. "The Women Who Had No Names" celebrates all of the women who came before.
  • Gwyneth Paltrow is Jewish? "Who Knew?"
  • David leads the cast in the moving closing song "L'Dor V'Dor," which means "from generation to generation." 
In this country that prides itself as a "melting plot," all cultures get lost through the generations. This book and musical are a way for people of Jewish heritage to hold on to some of that culture that they grew up with and share it with others of their and future generations. But it's about more than being Jewish, it's about how to hold on to and celebrate who you are and who your ancestors were in a world that's trying to make us all the same.

Stars of David plays Saturdays and Sundays only through March 8 at the Highland Park Center Theater on Ford Parkway.