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. Now Los Angeles is getting its first Shlemiel The First, through June 8.
The Geffen Playhouse on Le Conte Ave. will finish its inaugural season with the klezmer musical, adapted from stories by Yiddish/English author, Isaac Bashevis Singer. This mounting, directed by Gordon, is produced in association with ART and AMTF. Said Geffen producing director Gilbert Cates called the piece, "A rich theatrical tapestry [which has] revitalized a musical form that abounds with joy and hope."
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." An eight-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.
Appearing in Shlemiel The First are Remo Airaldi, Thomas Derrah, Benjamin Evett, Will LeBow, Charles Levin, Maureen McVerry, Vontress Tyrone and Alice Playten. Sets are by Robert Israel, costumes by Catherine Zuber, sound by Christopher Walker and lighting by Neil Peter Jampolis.
The first Geffen season, which has already attracted 10,000 subscribers, offered By Jeeves, Quills and Love! Valour! Compassion! before the opening of Shlemiel, May 14. For tickets ($27.50-$37.50) and information call (310) 208-5454.
--By David Lefkowitz