Musicals Tonight has begun its 14th season, and 66th production with Jerry Herman’s first Broadway show, the 1961 Milk and Honey. Herman and librettist, Don Appel, were sent to Israel to soak up atmosphere for the commission. Clearly of two minds concerning the place itself, they created a bittersweet, old-fashioned piece centered on a busload of widows (comic caricatures) hoping to find husbands while touring the country. The more serious story concerns itself with often difficult compromises necessary for loving relationships.
The first number, “Arab Song,” in Hebrew and English, occurs when a Yemenite boy tries to sell t-shirts on the street and is sent packing by a policeman: Why can’t my goat go up the street/The street is supposed to be free/Israel is the promised land/Is what they promised me…Ruth Stein (Barbara McCulloh) a pretty, forty-something widow from Cleveland also wonders why. He seems harmless. The lyric is translated for her by Phil Arkin (Richard White), an attractive American. You can practically see lightening strike.
Pushed into accepting a date with him by Clara Weiss (Verna Pierce), the kibitzing head of her tour (Molly Picon was the original), Ruth has a wonderful day in the desert. Further nudging provokes her accepting an invitation to the Moshav (farm) to visit Phil’s daughter, Barbara, (Yael Gonen) and son-in-law, David (Michael Mott). The older couple get involved with the community, growing close, but Phil has a secret which threatens their future. A secondary plot involving compromises made by the young people shadows the first.
This is an author’s first show. The book is simplistic and a bit clumsy, the tunes are all similar, its Jewish characters are clichés. Still, Herman has always had a way with uncomplicated, sentimental songs and stories. Milk and Honey is rather sweet. It also touches on moral and social quandaries of a more sophisticated nature. Questions would certainly have arisen while exiting the original performance.
Barbara McCulloch (Ruth Stein) imbues Ruth with both credible doubt and delighted recognition of unexpected love. We make the journey with her. McCulloch relates to other players with warmth and directness, minimizing attention to text. (All the actors hold books in these productions). Innate graciousness and a kind of lovely inner light make the actress a splendid heroine.
Richard White (Phil) was the voice of Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. He has a vibrato-filled, operatic baritone which gives Phil the gravitas he needs to act as the core of the plot. Chemistry with his onstage match is effectively played as is his character’s gentle, sincere nature and solidity.
Verna Pierce (Clara Weiss) ably personifies the heart-of-gold, meddling New Yawker. Inflections are classic, ringing true to the genre. Her bubbly talk-singing works for the role. Pierce manages to play broad but human.
Among supporting actors, Peter Tedeschi offers a brief, but endearing turn as Mr. Horrowitz and Emily Glick has sympathetic, grounded moments as Zipporah.
Thomas Sabella-Mills (Director/Choreographer) doesn’t have much to work with here in terms of plausible action. The leads relate well, the younger couples less so. Tour ladies are aptly exaggerated.
In the continuing tradition of Musicals Tonight, this is a rare opportunity to see perhaps the least well known of Jerry Herman’s work and get a glimpse of the moirés of the era.
All American by Charles Strouse, Lee Adams and Mel Brooks follows October 25-November 6, 2011
Photo Credit: Michael Portantiere
#1: Richard White, Verna Pierce, Barbara McCulloch
#2: Deborah Jean Templin, Emily Glick, Peter Tedeschi, Aaron Beck, Sandy Rosenberg
Musicals Tonight presents
Milk and Honey
Music & Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Adapted by Richard Sabellico
Directed and Choreographed by Thomas Sabella-Mills
Musical Director, Vocal Arranger-James Stenborg
The Lion Theater
410 West 42nd Street
Through October 23, 2011