Robert Brustein and David Gordon's Shlemiel The First is definitely not a shlimazel (definitions below). The show, conceived at Yale Rep in 1974, eventually made its way to Brustein's American Repertory Theatre (ART) in Cambridge, MA; to Philadelphia's American Music Theatre Festival (AMTF), and to Lincoln Center's Serious Fun! Festival in New York. It was even announced for a Broadway run, subsequently cancelled.
Now the show will return to ART for a limited run, Sept. 9-28.
The klezmer musical was adapted by Brustein from stories by Yiddish/English author, Isaac Bashevis Singer. You don't have to be Jewish to identify with the denizens of Chelm, the mythical, Eastern-European village. In their gentle foolishness, the Chelm dwellers display an odd kind of logic and wisdom. Loosely translated from Yiddish, the word "Shlemiel" denotes a fool with a penchant for harmless bad luck. (The classic definition of shlemiel and shlimazel runs like this: in a restaurant, a shlemiel is the hapless waiter who spills coffee on a customer. A shlimazel is the customer.)
In Shlemiel The First, the hero sets on a journey to spread the town council's wisdom throughout the world. Tricked on his journey, he immediately ends up back in his hometown -- only he thinks it's a duplicate village with people who look and act the same as in Chelm.
Songs in Shlemiel The First include "We're Talking Chelm," "He's Going To Die," "Can This Be Hell?", "Meshugah" and "Yenta's Blintzes." A seven-piece band backs up this happy foolishness, with music composed, adapted and orchestrated by Hankus Netsky. Zalmen Mlotek added additional music and arrangements, with Arnold Weinstein providing the lyrics. Brustein, best known (at least recently) for his high-profile arguments with August Wilson about non-traditional casting, is the founding director of Yale Rep and ART. Gordon, whose extraordinary The Mysteries And What's So Funny? played two engagements Off Broadway, is a noted choreographer. His latest piece is the work-in progress, The First Picture Show, starring Estelle Parsons and due for NY in October.
Appearing in Shlemiel The First at ART are Remo Airaldi, Benjamin Evett, Will LeBow (Shlemiel), Charles Levin, Maureen McVerry, Charles Levin, Marilyn Sokol, Scott Cunningham and Ron Bobb-Semple. Sets are by Robert Israel, costumes by Catherine Zuber, sound by Christopher Walker and lighting by Peter Kaczorowski.
Co-produced by Philadelphia PA's American Music Theatre Festival, Shlemiel is also part of the new music theatre initiative developed by ART and AMTF. For more information on Shlemiel The First ART on Brattle St. In Cambridge, call (617) 547-8300. For more information on ART's 1997-98 season, please see the story, "The Season At MA's A.R.T.: Brecht, Brustein, Belgrader, Bacchae."
--By David Lefkowitz