Heather MacRae is the modern Jewish mama who learns her doctor son is in love with a Caribbean island nurse, in the world premiere musical, Abie's Island Rose, beginning previews April 29 at the Jewish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan.
As first reported by Playbill On-Line, the four-character musical, officially opening May 7 at JRT's Playhouse 91, draws its inspiration from the classic Anne Nichols comedy, Abie's Irish Rose, but resets the story (of a Jewish boy falling in love with a girl outside his culture) in the Caribbean.
MacRae will be the dismayed Jewish mother, Madeline Feinman, whose son, Abie, a medical student, falls for an Afro Caribbean nurse. Joining cabaret singer and actress Heather MacRae, whose Broadway credits include Hair and Falsettos, are Keith Lee Grant (Marie Christine) as Rose's island-priest father, comic actor Steve Rosen (of the sketch comedy troupe, Utah Arm) as Abie and Carla Woods (a recent graduate of Cincinnati College Conservatory) as Rose.
The musical takes place on two mythical islands, according to the creators: Tornados in the Caribbean and Manhattan on the Hudson.
MacRae is known recently for her award-winning one-woman show, Songs for My Father, dedicated to her father, Gordon MacRae who starred in the films "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel." Abie's Island Rose is the invention of Ron Sproat (book), Richard Engquist and Frank Evans (co-lyricists) and Doug Katsaros (music). Katsaros, musical director and conductor of Broadway's Footloose, also directs.
Emmy Award-nominated Sproat served as head writer for the ABC cult classic "Dark Shadows," currently seen on the Sci-Fi network.
Lyricists Engquist and Evans are both members of the steering committee of BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. Engquist received the Outer Critics Circle Award for his lyrics for Kuni-Leml in 1984-85. The JRT staging subsequently moved to an independent Off-Broadway run. JRT revived it in 1998. A recording followed.
Engquist also collaborated with Katsaros on Elizabeth and Essex and regional productions of Dennis the Menace. Evans recently completed lyrics for a musical version of the Kaufman-Ferber classic, Dinner at Eight, in development at the Century Center for the Performing Arts (where an initial reading of Abie's was also done).
The idea of the show, like so many plays and musicals, popped up over drinks and a meal between librettist Sproat and lyricists Frank Evans and Richard Engquist.
"We went for dessert and drinks," Evans told Playbill On-Line. "We were bemoaning the lack of ideas for shows when Richard said, 'Well, there's always Abie's Island Rose. Take the old chestnut, but make Rose a beautiful young woman from the islands...'"
The idea had apparently been aroused in Engquist after seeing mixed-marriage couples in his Brooklyn neighborhood and at the temple he attends (his wife is Jewish).
"It is almost impossible to read the original play by Anne Nichols -- filled with phony Yiddishisms," Evans said. "Nichols financed the play herself with the help of mob money -- the show ended up playing at what is now the New Victory. We have taken the title and modified it, otherwise there are no similarities."
Evans explains, "Years ago, I had worked a bread and butter job in a doctor's practice where one of the physicians had started his medical training in the tropics because he could not get into a medical school in the U.S. Rose is based on a Barbadian nurse in the same office."
"There is a deity named Obatala; the name of the religion we concocted in order to be a little less offensive is Ositarius. Obatala exists and I think He is watching over us. Rose's father is a priest of Ositarius."
Thinking about economics and uncluttered storytelling, the collaborators decided to make the musical a very producible four-character show.
"We were left with one more character to define, Abie's mother," Evans said. "About that time, Madeline Allbright revealed her Jewish ancestry and we were off and running. Madeline could not be a typical Jewish mother. She's Jewish and she's a mother, but she is a classy businesswoman."
Sproat wrote the initial libretto and Engquist showed the book to his longtime collaborator, composer Doug Katsaros, who liked the book. Katsaros and Engquist wrote the songs for Elizabeth and Essex, which was initially done at Encompass (the Music Theatre) with Estelle Parsons and Richard White. They also penned Dennis the Menace (the musical).
"When the opportunity came up for the Jewish Rep slot, [Doug] asked us if we had a clear concept of how the show should look," Evans said. "We didn't have an answer and Doug said he did. He was so convincing that Ran Avni, artistic director at Jewish Rep, went for Doug as director immediately."
How did lyricists Engquist and Evans share writing duties?
"We met, decided where the songs would be and divvied up the lyrics," Evans said. "I would write some, Richard would write others and we had the right to edit each other. Some are total amalgam -- one a duet where I wrote one character and he wrote another."
Sproat and Evans have been partners for 30 years and drew on family dynamics to feed the new work: "I think the show reflects problems we had with our collective parents," Evans said. "Ron feels it's more about his sister who married a Portuguese artist, much to the distress of his parents; and he brought a great deal of that to the script. I think there is a universal appeal to the show."
Haila Strauss (who staged dances for Kuni-Leml) will choreograph. Designers are James Morgan (sets), Mary Jo Dondlinger (lighting) and Daryl Stone (costumes).
Tickets are $35-$40. Playhouse 91, 316 East 91st St. For information or reservations, call the JRT box office at (212) 831-2000.
-- By Kenneth Jones