Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902–1991) was a Polish-born Jewish-American writer known, in part, for his storiesabout the fictional village of Chelm, populated by fools of many stripes. These stories were adapted (by Robert Brustein, lyrics by Arnold Weinstein, music by Hankus Netsky) in the mid-70s into the musical "Shlemiel the First."
Chelm boasts several inhabitants, among them foolish Shlemiel (the perfectly-cast Terry Meddows), who would prefer to sleep the day away and allow his hard-working wife (Emily Baker) to support him and their two children (Taylor Pietz, Mike Dowdy) by selling radishes to buy bread. When the town's "wise" leader, Gronam Ox (Todd Schaefer) decides the world needs to be told of his magnificence -- a status echoed by his toadying council members (Antonio Rodriquez, Anna Skidis, Keith Thompson) -- he sends Shlemiel off to do just that, to the dismay of Mrs. Shlemiel and Gronam Ox's frustrated wife (Johanna Elkana-Hale). When the devious Rascal tricks the clueless Shlemiel into returning the way he came, he returns home only to believe the village and everyone he meets are from a similar but entirely different Chelm, and he is now Shlemiel the Second. As the town copes with the "meshuggah" (crazy) Shlemiel, they all learn something about themselves. Of course, in the end, when Shlemiel returns to 'his' Chelm, they are all somewhat happier, but no less foolish.
Director Edward Coffield and Assistant Director Michael Fling cast well. All are competent singers, and most of the nine handily portray several different roles with the use of costume and wigs. Energy was obviously high and the pacing brisk, which is what this show needed. The cast is nicely supported by the small band of on-stage musicians led by Musical Director Henry Palkes, and contributions by JT Ricroft as Choreographer, Costume Designer Michele Friedman Siler, and Kimberly Klearman as Lighting Designer.
As nice as the acting and music are, however, they are eclipsed by the clever and impressive visual elements of the production. The overall look (Scenic Designers Margery and Peter Spack, Scenic Artist Cristie Johnston) is a captivating delight with many intricate and inventive details. The set sports a gingerbread-style house as the main element, massive books as the flats and platforms of the multi-level set, creative set pieces to enhance story motion, and a crafty radish motif throughout. Colors are bright and eye-catching. I was charmed by the obvious thought that went into all these elements.
"Shlemiel the First" runs approx. 82 minutes without an intermission. It will be on stage in the New Jewish Theatre's facility in the Wool Studio Theater, located in the Arts & Education Building of the Jewish Community Center in Creve Coeur, through June 9, 2013. www.newjewishtheatre.org or 314-442-3283 for more information.