A Place For Us: A Celebration of Jewish Broadway
“Theater is my temple and my religion and my act of faith.” Harvey Fierstein
“Something’s Coming” (Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim –West Side Story) opens this show with quicksilver nuance, not the usual swelling vocal. Ari Axelrod Puckishly plays. He bounces, hands on thighs, moving around the stage as if in a game of blindman’s bluff. It’s almost clownish – like Bill Irwin in a Beckett piece, serious clowning. Be alert, be aware he seems to say. With the shusssh of a skier, “Miracle of Miracles” (Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick- Fiddler on the Roof) exuberantly follows. “God has made a man today,” he stomps.
Tonight Birdland is a Temple as much as a temple. Revising his 2018 show (under a different name) “to reflect the ever shifting landscape of life for American Jews,” Axelrod ignites presentation with intensity of purpose. “I no longer believe Jewish resilience is enough. I’m interested in Jewish vitality- L’Chaim! (To life!)” Pride of heritage is inextricably braided with gratitude for and celebration of his/our gifts. Though this evening is unusually rife with meaning, it’s also an entertainment.
Most people think 1964 Fiddler on the Roof was the first musical by and about Jews, he begins. In fact, it was Jerry Herman’s Milk and Honey, three years before. A medley from the musical shows that Herman had innate gravitas before he was 30, much as this artist. Lyrics resonate. Arms remain at his sides; hands rise only if compelled. “When life throws its impossibilities at us, we lean on the things we know and love. Ours is also a culture rich in storytelling. Putting stories to music came naturally.”
Pointing out the influence of Jews on writers of other backgrounds, Axelrod paraphrases Cole Porter whom Steve Ross refers to as “my favorite Unitarian composer.” “I figured out the secrets to writing hits. I’m going to write Jewish songs,” Porter wrote to George Gershwin. The artist then parallels several familiar lyrics with traditional Jewish music. Similarity is uncanny. Porter/Mike Stapleton’s “So In Love” (Kiss Me, Kate) – “what could possibly be more Jewish than a minor key?”-is also uncommonly approached. This is a shy man, astonished at his state, hoping for but not believing in success. Axelrod sings as if alone in a room after the object of his love has exited. It’s original and effective.
We then hear a selection each from Richard Rodgers, Mary Rodgers Guettel, and Adam Guettel exemplifying legacy. “Some Enchanted Evening” is another fresh take. The artist looks across the room as if swept up in real time, leaning forward, drawn, heart breaking. Everything he observes and anticipates plays across his face. At “Never let her go” we feel he’s lost. Musical arrangement is gorgeous.
Lawrence Yurman’s piano hand is as sensitive as it is symbiotic. Stop/start and bridges breathe in time with the vocalist. Arrangements are rife with context, something more rare than it sounds. His contribution is essential to this piece.
Though I’ve previously seen Axelrod perform “Bring Him Home” (Alain Boublil/ Herbert Kretzmer- Les MIserables) in Hebrew and English, its impact is undiminished. The artist seems to have swallowed this whole, like a 16th century Sin-Eater. It’s a wrenching prayer, a plea. B’Shalom. Also repeated is the artist’s inspired rendition of “Cool” (Bernstein/Sondheim- West Side Story) accompanying himself on bongo drum. The terrific arrangement employs flat and side handwork, elbow and arm slides. The number lives up to its title.
“This is Not Over Yet” finds an unjustly convicted man in awe of his wife’s work towards vindication – to no end. Impotence and despair are palpable. Guest Talia Suskauer sings the wife on this and “All the Wasted Time” as the couple reflect on their lives. (Both Jason Robert Brown – Parade.) Axelrod is focused on her, their relationship, while Suskauer keeps turning towards the audience – a disconnect. His guest has a bright, clear voice with a tint of pop inflection.
A tandem “Silent Spring” and “Adrift On a Star” (Yip Harburg/Harold Arlen/Jacques Offenbach/Jules Barbier/Michel Carré) emerge as if meant for one another. Yurman’s wonderful, lilting arrangement gives us just a moment of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at its finish. We close with another from that musical, “Somewhere,” which starts a capella. Meaning now encompasses the ancient and alas, current Jewish plight. Apparently Anti-Semitism hasn’t been so prevalent since World War II.
Caveats: “Shy” (Rodgers Guettel/Marshall Barer- Once Upon a Mattress) feels manic rather than funny. We don’t know what the performer intends. And “It Ain’t Necessarily So”(George Gershwin – Porgy and Bess) lacks the menace I consider its backbone. While I realize Axelrod meant it differently, I don’t think interpretation was successful.
Ari Axelrod raises alarm but he also moves forward with commitment and grace. There’s joy alongside sorrow, faith next to frustration, love steps from fury. The artist has given us another remarkable evening.
Photos by Jeff Harnar
A Place For Us: A Celebration of Jewish Broadway
Ari Axelrod – Performer
Lawrence Yurman – MD/Piano
Jeff Harnar – Creative Consultant
Talia Suskauer – Guest Performer
315 West 44th Street