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A Letter to Harvey Milk – The Musical at Waterloo East Theatre

If there’s one thing A Letter to Harvey Milk can’t be faulted on, it’s the sheer topicality, even in a story set a generation ago. The show explores the (mis)use of guns in society as well as prevailing negative attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people and anti-Semitism. It quickly becomes clear that as work is still to be done on such matters in 2022, a show set in 1986 in San Francisco is something of an indictment of where we are today.

A Letter to Harvey Milk - The Musical
A Letter to Harvey Milk – The Musical. Photo credit Gareth McLeod.

Harry Weinberg (Barry James), a widower and retired kosher butcher, is at the Jewish Community Center (‘center’, not ‘centre’, this being the United States), where he is a regular visitor. A creative writing ‘class’ (again, ‘class’, not ‘course’) is starting up, led by Barbara Katsef (Josselyn Ryder) – he has no particular interest in taking up writing, but she manages to persuade him to join the class anyway. There are weekly ‘assignments’ – not ‘tasks’ – to complete, each of which (quelle surprise) involve writing about something. One of the assignments is to write a letter to someone who has died. Harry decides to write… a letter to Harvey Milk.

Quite who Harvey Milk (1930-1978) (Joshua Anthony-Jones) was doesn’t become clear to those, like me, who didn’t already know, until a considerable amount of the second half. Milk ran for city supervisor in San Francisco – the musical doesn’t, to the best of my recollection, state exactly when, though he was assassinated whilst in office, in 1978, by a fellow supervisor (there are eleven in total) who carried so much hatred he somehow felt it appropriate to kill Milk as well as the city mayor, George Moscone. Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected in California, and Harry (as this musical would have it) maintained a good friendship with him for some years.

On reflection, the narrative isn’t as watertight as it first seems. Harry is given an opportunity to explain, for instance, how his personal recollection of the use of the pink triangle by the Nazis in concentration camps to identify homosexual men meant he did not like seeing it forty or so years later, even repurposed as a symbol of protest against homophobic acts. A similar opportunity to explain why she thinks what she thinks is not afforded to his late wife Frannie (Carol Ball). It’s bad enough that there’s a ghost about the house, let alone one obsessed with Harry not telling Barbara anything he didn’t tell Frannie when she was alive. This isn’t, I must emphasise, a slight on Ball, who plays the character with gusto, but I felt Frannie’s presence was entirely superfluous.

The night really belongs to Ryder, whose soprano voice is a delight to listen to whenever it is allowed to soar, which isn’t often enough. This was a ninety-minute no-intermission production when it played off-Broadway: here, the point at which the interval (as we call it in Blighty) occurs seems a little odd as the second half begins precisely where the first half ended, as opposed to the start of the next scene. Some gentle humour in a restaurant scene lightens the mood somewhat. The ensemble are largely kept behind translucent screens – I’m still not sure entirely why they were sort-of hidden, given the progress of the gay liberation movement.

It’s an ambitious show, and perhaps might work better purely as a two-hander between Harry and Barbara, particularly in the relatively intimate setting of the Waterloo East Theatre. Some food for thought comes through plot twists in a complex but nonetheless accessible show that explores different facets of making a public stand.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

San Francisco. 1986.
When Harry, an amiable but lonely retired kosher butcher fulfils a writing assignment to compose a letter to someone from his past who’s dead, he writes not to his late wife Frannie but to Harvey Milk, the first openly gay political leader in California.

Barbara, his young lesbian writing teacher at the senior centre is stunned. Harry’s letter sets off a series of life-changing events that neither could have foreseen.

With its soaring score and deeply-felt, surprisingly funny lyrics, this musical deals with issues of friendship and loss, the grip of the past, and the hard-won acceptance set in motion by the most unexpected people.

West End stars Barry James (Les Miserables, Phantom of The Opera, Cabaret, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory) and Carol Ball (Adams Family, Flashdance, Follies, 42nd Street) lead the cast that also includes Rebecca Levy (Mama Mia) Joshua Anthony-Jones (Elegies) Harry Winchester (Three Little Pigs) and recent graduates Josselyn Ryder and Christopher Dodd.

Director: Gerald Armin.
Musical Director: Olivia Zacharia.
Lighting Design: Jonathan Simpson.
Design: Emily Barker.
Company Stage Manager: Gareth McLeod.
Casting: Andrew Lynford CSA.

Waterloo East Theatre presents
A Letter to Harvey Milk – The Musical
Lyrics: Laura I. Kramer. Additional Lyrics: Cheryl Stern. Music by Ellen M. Schwartz
Book by Ellen M. Schwartz, Cheryl Stern, Laura I. Kramer and Jerry James
Based on the short story “A Letter to Harvey Milk” by Lesléa Newman
June 9 to July 3 2022

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