Schlemiel the First | New Jewish Theatre

NJTSchlemiel-75Schlemiel decides there must be two Chelms in the world and that he has found the second, complete with a wife and children who look exactly like his.




Photos by John Lamb

When you enter the New Jewish Theatre space, take some time to look closely at Margery and Peter Spack’s set. The description of place and time of Schlemiel the First is “Chelm, a Village of Fools, a long, long time ago.” The show is a musical adaptation of Nobelist Isaac Bashevis Singer’s play based on his own stories set in the fictional Chelm. The space is literally created from words and pictures. Huge books both support and flank the playing space, and smaller ones hang on a shelf above. The floor is a map, situating Chelm between “Everywhere” and “Elsewhere.” Spinning wheels upstage depict the wide world in images, including a familiar Arch. It is a spectacular design, enhanced by Kimberly Klearman’s lights. Scenic artist Christie Johnston renders an entrancing world of primary color.

We meet the humble beadle “Schlemiel” (Terry Meddows) when his wife (Emily Baker) is trying to roust him out of bed so she can leave the children (Taylor Pietz, Mike Dowdy) to go on her daily rounds selling radishes at market. She sings of his laziness and her frustration with him and their life, and it’s clear that she is intelligent enough to be unhappy. Her husband, no smarter than he has to be, seems content until he meets with the village “sages” (Dowdy, Anna Skidis, and Keith Thompson), each with a hand puppet, so there are six—although they can’t seem to figure that out, according to a song in which they try to get an accurate count. His actual boss is the wisest man in Chelm, which isn’t saying much considering it is a village of fools, Gronam Ox (Todd Schaefer). It is decided that Schlemiel should take his giant dreydl that he uses as a schtetl version of a Magic 8 Ball, and carry the wisdom of Gronam Ox throughout the world.

His wife objects, but he’s determined to follow orders and takes off for what may be as long as three years. Gronam Ox’s wife, Yenta Pesha (Johanna Elkana-Hale) makes it clear he’s not as smart as he thinks he is, and tries to help Mrs. Schlemiel. In fact, Schlemiel’s trip is cut short, but only because of the machinations of Chaim Rascal (Antonio Rodriguez), whom he meets along the road on his first day out. Rascal tricks him and makes off with his latkes, turning him back to Chelm in the process. After a sleep, Schlemiel wanders into a town that looks familiar. He decides there must be two Chelms in the world and that he has found the second, complete with a wife and children who look exactly like his. Is he the first Schlemiel or the second?

This 85-minute production features much toe-tapping, hand-clapping traditional music, and dancing and merriment, and the performers are all up to it. There is quite a range of ability in singing voices, but this isn’t grand opera, so that doesn’t really matter much. JT Ricroft’s work often demonstrates his ability to choreograph for non-dancers and make them look good, and he does it here. It also helps that director Edward Coffield has kept his ensemble seeming as if they are on an equal footing (so to speak). The performers appear to be having fun themselves throughout the show, so the audience does also. Overall, the New Jewish Theatre is closing a most satisfying season with this charming “dessert.” | Andrea Braun


Schlemiel the First runs through June 9. You may visit New Jewish Theatre online for information.

Klezmer music performed by musical director Henry Palkes on keyboards, and Alyssa Avery (violin), Dana Hotle (clarinet), and Adam Anello (bass). Musical rendition conceived and adapted by Robert Brustein; lyrics by Arnold Weinstein; composed, adapted and orchestrated by Hankus Netsky; musical arrangements and additional music by Zalmen Mlotek;editorial supervision by David Gordon.

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