Throughout history there have been ceremonies and celebrations held to mark the rite of passage from being a child to being an adult. For example, for young, well connected ladies, there was the debutante season culminating with being presented at court. For the rest of us, we would normally make do with a big party with friends and relatives when we hit 18 or 21. However, if you are a young Jewish boy, then the change from child to adult is one of the major events of your life, and it is this which is being celebrated in Aria Entertainment’s brand new staging of Bar Mitzvah Boy The Musical currently being premiered at Upstairs at the Gatehouse in leafy Highgate.
On Friday evening, young Eliot Green (Adam Bregman) is contemplating what tomorrow will bring. For this is no ordinary weekend, and tomorrow, Eliot is off to the synagogue where he will stand next to Rabbi Sherman (Jeremy Rose) and in front of the God and the congregation take part in his Bar Mitzvah ceremony. However, if Eliot has fears about Saturday, they are nothing when compared to those of the rest of the family. For months his mother, Rita (Sue Kelvin) has been preparing for her son’s Bar Mitzvah – and the socially important dinner/dance afterwards – with the plans getting bigger and more expensive at every turn, causing husband Victor (Robert Maskell) to cash in three insurance policies in order to pay for it all. Even Eliot’s usually calmer and more relaxed sister, Lesley (Lara Stubbs) is starting to feel the tension of the night before the big day. Luckily, she has dependable boyfriend Harold (Nicholas Corre) around – as he is every Friday night – to help her and the family, including Eliot’s Grandad (Hayward B More). In fact of everyone that Eliot knows, the one person that doesn’t give a hoot about his Bar Mitzvah is schoolfriend Denise (Hannah Rose Thompson) who is more worried that he may have snitched on her at school.
With all the tension in the air, it is taking every ounce of physical and mental strength for the Green family to keep it together on this Friday night. Rita wants to ring the caterers and press the suits once more, Victor wants to read his paper and Grandad wants a piece of cake – so it’s a good thing that Eliot is a steady, reliable boy who can be counted on to do his bit without any fuss or drama.
Based on the well known Jack Rosenthal play of the same name, Bar Mitzvah Boy The Musical has had a checkered and not very distinguished past. However, all that is forgotten now and this new version with a revised book by David Thompson and music and lyrics by Jule Styne and Don Black is a fantastic example of what a great musical should be – a well established plot with great characters and songs that fit and move the story on.
It looked right from the moment we entered the auditorium, thanks to Grace Smart’s wonderful set – complete with horrible 1970s wallpaper and a set of flying ducks over the window (a la Hilda Ogden in her heyday). I loved the fact the band under the direction of Musical Director Edward Court were part of the set, just off the kitchen behind the black and white string blind and the little grassed area which served both as a garden and as the the highly important local playground. Considering how intimate the performing space is at the Gatehouse, I was impressed with how much set there was and how effectively it was used by Director Stewart Nicholls to move his actors around the various scenes.
Turning now to the actors and wow, the Green Family were a formidable force on the stage. instantly recognisable as a semi-traditional Jewish family – but never slipping over the edge into stereotypes – they worked so smoothly together, you would think they really were a true family – in fact I’m sure I’ve met them at some event or another. Full credit to Sue, Robert, Lara and Hayward for their fantastic performances and especially to the star in the making, young Adam Bregman who performed with a style and confidence that belies his youthful years – make a note of that name, I have a feeling it will turn up again and again over the next few years.
I suppose if I have one criticism with the production, it was the relationship between Lesley and Harold which was never really explored enough for my liking. Harold just seemed totally wrong for Lesley (apologies to Nicholas Corre but you played the lad too well) and I couldn’t imagine the rest of the family putting up with such a fence sitter for so long – even if he does the washing up on a Friday – particularly mum Rita who strikes me as being the sort of mother who would want a bit better for her daughter. A pretty minor worry really and this concern didn’t distract me from enjoying the show as a whole.
To sum up then, Bar Mitzvah Boy The Musical was thoroughly enjoyable from the moment I entered the auditorium until the moment I left. Although the story is about a Jewish family, you really don’t need to be Jewish to understand and appreciate this story of a boy growing to be a man and his family learning to accept that their child is a boy no more. It could have been a bit longer but ultimately, it did everything a great musical should do. It told a lovely story using a combination of great script, fantastic songs and a wonderful cast, and left me leaving the theatre with a smile on my face, a warm glow in a my heart and a sudden need to phone my mother. An awesome night that was well worth the journey.
Review by Terry Eastham
Bar Mitzvah Boy
Jack Rosenthal adapted his award winning 1976 TV play (British Academy Best Play Award and Broadcasting Press Guild Best Play Award), for the musical stage with America’s Oscar and Tony award composer Jule Styne and lyrics by Oscar and Tony award winner Don Black. This new production will run for 6 weeks from Thursday 3 March to Sunday 10 April. The press night is on Thursday 10 March at 7.30pm
In the cast are Adam Bregman (Eliot) , Sue Kelvin (Rita), Robert Maskell (Victor), Lara Stubbs (Lesley), Nicholas Corre (Harold), Hayward B Morse (Granddad), Jeremy Rose (Rabbi), Hannah Thompson (Denise). Direction and musical staging are by Stewart Nicholls.
Designed by Grace Smart with lighting by James Smith and sound by Charles Parry. The orchestrator/Musical Supervisor is Richard Healey, Musical Director is Ed Court, and additional Musical Director Neil Macdonald. Stewart Nicholls has produced and researched Galas at the Royal Albert Hall, Festival Hall, and B.A.M. New York. He has directed many shows at Edinburgh Fringe. He recently choreographed a UK tour of ‘Iolanthe’ and ‘The Mikado’ and directed/choreographed Julian Slade’s ‘Free As Air’ at the Finborough.
Bar Mitzvah Boy
Presented by Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment
Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Don Black
Book by Jack Rosenthal
Book Revised by David Thompson
Directed by Stewart Nicholls
3rd March to 10th April 2016
RUNNING TIME: 2 hours 15 minutes approx, inc. one 15-minute interval