Jerry Herman’s first (1961) Broadway effort has Israeli flavor (including Hebrew) without awkwardness or polemic. Herman and book writer Don Appell were sent abroad by producer Gerard Oestreicher to immerse themselves in the pioneer state about to celebrate its 13th Anniversary (a Bar Mitzvah). They created a sympathetic sketch steeped in traditional settlement values whose moral compass is in no way exclusively Jewish. Milk and Honey is full of (appreciatively cliché) humor. Its warm, primary relationships eschew rose colored glasses.
We first meet the busload of touring American widows on the streets of Jerusalem. Mrs. Kessler (Marcy DeGonge Manfredi), Mrs. Perlman (Joy Hermalyn), Mrs. Segal (Joanne Lessner), and Mrs. Weiss- Clara (Alix Korey) “tell me everything, don’t leave out a word” have come as much to find husbands as to broaden their horizons. Mrs. Stein-Ruth (Anne Runolfsson) joined the group to break a pattern of hen parties and memories.
Alix Korey, who plays Clara, a role originated by Molly Picon, is flat out terrific. Not only does the respected veteran remind us once again of vocal skill, but comic timing is impeccable, accent pitch perfect, and the actress segues to more serious moments with utter finesse. There are many reasons to enjoy this production, but Korey is a prime one. Her “Hymn to Hymie” (Clara’s deceased husband) is wonderful.
When a shepherd (Ari Axelrod in one of several roles) tries to drive his flock on a main thoroughfare (music stands tied together, each with a printed sign that says: SHEEP), American Phil Arkin (Mark Delevan) calms the crowd. Ruth asks him to translate. They connect. A retired businessman, Phil has skeptically come to visit his daughter Barbara (Jessica Fontana) and meet her new husband David, a Sabra. (A Jew born on Israeli territory.) The young people live in the Negev. “Give your daughter a European education and she brings home a farmer.”
Perry Sherman, Jessica Fontana (David and Barbara)
Phil impulsively asks Ruth to join Barbara and him touring the city. They have a wonderful day. She’s then invited to the desert. Putting aside a lifetime of reservations, she goes, seamlessly pitching in and fitting in. The middle aged couple credibly fall in love, for the first time seeing options both thought were unavailable. Unfortunately Phil still has a much estranged, eventually revealed wife.
Jacob Heimer, Abby Goldfarb (Adi & Zipporah)
Secondarily, we watch Barbara and her husband David (Peter Sherman- warm presence, good accent, fine voice) deal with her adjustment from upper middle class city life to agronomy, and malcontent farmer Adi (Jacob Heimer- good accent, solid acting and vocal) negotiate pregnancy and marriage (in that order) with girlfriend Zipporah (Abby Goldfarb- ably spirited.)
Milk and Honey is about second chances, integrity, courage, and partnerships.
Joy Hermalyn, Alix Korey, John Little (Mrs. Perlman, Clara, Mr. Horowitz)
Anne Runolfsson has a strong, mid range soprano. The actress grows into her role before our eyes, at first less than natural, but gradually troubled and infectiously moved as a compelling Ruth Stein. Opera singer Mark Delavan lends not only deep, resonant vocals, but thoughtful rendering of dialogue (which gives us time to watch the character consider) and tenderness that makes Phil Arkin always believable. The two voices blend beautifully.
Mark Delavan, Anne Runolfsson
Director Michael Unger does a splendid job with both lively and touching numbers. His actors have a good sense of where and when they are. Intimacy is well played. Pacing is just right. Visuals appeal. Only a parenthesis where the widows involve audience members feels uncomfortable.
Choreography by Yehuda Hyman is cute (not cloying) and appropriately ethnic.
Also featuring: John Little
This is the land of Milk and Honey/ This is the land of sun and song and /
This is the world of good and plenty /Humble and proud and young and strong
Photos by Ben Strothmann
Opening: Mark Delavan, Anne Runolfsson, Alix Korey (Phil, Ruth, Clara)
The York Theatre Company
Musicals in Mufti!
Milk and Honey
Book-Don Appell; Music & Lyrics- Jerry Herman
Directed by Michael Unger
Music Direction- Jeffrey Saver
Through February 5, 2017
The York Theatre at St. Clements
619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street
NEXT: February 11-19: Berlin to Broadway