You could be forgiven for thinking that, over the last few months in London, Everything has been coming up Styne. Jule Styne to be precise. Critically acclaimed revivals of Gypsy and Funny Girl, his two major hits, have played or are about to play at the Savoy Theatre, and now, at Upstairs At The Gatehouse there is a revival/reconstruction of one of his lesser known works, Bar Mitzvah Boy.
Based on a very successful television play of the same name written by Jack Rosenthal, this new version of Bar Mitzvah Boy involves a book revised by Doug Thompson, Styne’s music and lyrics from the prolific Don Black. It is reported that one of the reasons Styne allowed the musical to languish, unproduced for decades, was that he disapproved of the way the original director Martin Charmin had given the intimate tale Rosenthal had written a razzle-dazzle Broadway treatment and, effectively, to Styne’s mind, ruined it.
Thompson persevered and in 2007 held a reading in New York of a revised treatment; this one incorporated songs written for the show subsequent to the original London run in 1978 and other Styne tunes, unused in his stage musicals, to which Don Black added lyrics to suit the very Jewish, very intimate tale. It is this greatly revised work which Stewart Nicholls has directed for the current season.
Be in no doubt – all the work done on Bar Mitzvah Boy since its London premiere has resulted in a shining example of a chamber musical. Styne’s score provides melodic pulse, Rosenthal’s characters exude real life and truth, albeit through a spectrum of stereotypes, and Thompson’s revisions focus attention on the core elements of the story – the family dynamics, the fear of failure, family shame, and, of course, family love.
Styne’s music feels very familiar, comfortable. You can imagine Rose singing a couple of these songs or perhaps Fanny’s mother. This doesn’t detract at all from their use and significance here. Far from it. Styne’s style here is gentler and sweeter than the bravura moments in Gypsy or Funny Girl but they seem natural siblings to numbers likeSmall World, You’ll Never Get Away From Me or Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?
Rosenthal’s story is paper thin but none the less beguiling. A thirteen year old boy is due his Bar Mitzvah, his right of passage from boyhood to manhood. He fears it, his mother, father and grandfather exalt in it, not just for what it means to their youngest, but for the party, the dancing, the celebration that will permit them to hold their heads high in the neighbourhood. His sister, at that age when her boyfriend is assuming primacy in her life, orbits events with a bemused detachment until she needs to intervene.
Obviously something goes wrong and the curtain at the end of Act One contains a somewhat surprising turn of events which means that Act Two can open with a desperately funny over-reaction and then roll on, tremendously satisfactorily, from there, with tears and laughs along the way.
Unsurprisingly, considering its origins, this feels like a 1970’s sit-com. This has positive and negative attributes. It seems a little twee and dated, but, equally, it feels immediately warm and familiar; something akin to when you find a well-loved shirt or pair of shoes in the back of the cupboard and want to wear them. You feel both daggy and good;Bar Mitzvah Boy is precisely the same.
In turns funny and touching, it succeeds because of its simplicity, its focus on character and its inherent warmth. In no way can it be considered a world-changing musical and although it is not in the league of its big sister, Gypsy, or its middle sisters, Bells are Ringing and Funny Girl, or even its youngest sister, Gentleman Prefer Blondes, it holds its ground as the troublesome and troubled little brother of the pack that you know will come good.
The central character here, unlike in many of Styne’s musicals, is male; Elliot, the thirteen year old titular character. Bar Mitzvah Boy shares one clear attribute with the others in the Styne stable – it turns on the bravura performance of one character. Here, Elliot is that character. It requires a sweet, genuine and honest performance; there is no place for jazz hands or slick, soulless razz-a-matazz. Glib artifice will sink this show faster than that iceberg sank the Titanic.
Happily, Adam Bregman is tremendously effective as Elliot and he nonchalantly, but stylishly, carries the burdens of the leading character. He has genuine appeal, splendid attack, and a truthfulness in the playing which ensures the audience is sympathetic to Elliot’s plight. He sings sweetly and surely too, giving Styne’s melodies proper value. His rendition of I’ve Just Begun is near perfect.
Because Bregman is so adept at being normal and ordinary, the rest of the cast have leeway with their more extreme characters. Elliot’s love for them all, bright and believable, keeps them from becoming the grotesque caricatures they could so easily be. You utterly buy into the Green family dynamics.
Sue Kelvin grasps the throat of Mrs Green and throttles every arch expression, every wry observation, every panicked trivial fear, and every ounce of humour from her well-drawn Jewish mother archetype. Her handling of the silly comedy is expert and she does tender work well too: We’ve Done Alright is a particular joy, as is Rita’s Request.
As the hard-working, penny saving, long-suffering father, Victor (have we ever seen a Jewish father who didn’t have those attributes?), Robert Maskell exudes the clenched-hair uncertainty about himself that makes the character tick. Steeped in tradition but aware of his children’s changing world view, this Victor struggles to understand and support as he guides his offspring along the only road he knows, unsure whether it is the road they actually want to travel. His work with Kelvin is particularly good and the long, enduring sense of their marriage is very clear.
Why Can’t He Be Like Me, the duet Victor sings with Hayward B Morse’s smiling, uncomplicated Grandad works splendidly, summing up his fears for Eliot and reflecting on his own father-son relationship with Granddad. Black’s lyrics throughout are insightful and clear, shading characters nicely through song and advancing emotional undertones. This is perhaps most acute in numbers such as This Time Tomorrow, Act Two Opening and The Sun Shines Out Of Your Eyes, each of which involve the older members of the Green family.
Lara Stubbs is completely delightful as Eliot’s loving/irritating sister, Lesley, and she and Bregman are wholly convincing as siblings. Love and annoyance are given equal measure, rightly. Stubbs sings with a fine, warm and true voice and her duets with Bregman, That’s Grown Up and You Wouldn’t Be You are excellent.
As hapless Harold, Lesley’s intended, Nicholas Corre is a masterclass in fidgety uncertainty and understatement. He is impossible not to like, rather like a cute puppy always seeking a warm pat. It is perfect and his delivery of The Harolds Of This World touching as well as amusing. Jeremy Rose, boasting the best voice of the cast, delivers a superb dark chocolate voiced Rabbi and Hannah Rose-Thompson makes the most of her quirky character, Denise, who is Eliot’s no-nonsense school companion.
All eight cast members have excellent musicianship and Musical Director Edward Court runs a tight ship with the small four piece band, ensuring that the score is well served with clear rhythms, clever textures in the accompaniment and a sure sense of charming brio. The music might seem familiar but it is never dull and Court’s work assists with that immeasurably. Richard Healey’s arrangements are terrific, period, and full of bounce.
Grace Smart’s design uses every inch of the space at Upstairs At the Gate very well. Audiences of a certain age will no doubt recognise fittings and furnishings which help to cement the setting as 1970 Willesden. The costumes are nicely judged too; they look good and ache of that particular 60s/70s decade turn: brown is ubiquitous as are swirls and whirls. James Smith’s lighting is reasonably effective and Charles Parry tries valiantly to keep the sound levels appropriate, occasionally losing the challenge.
Stewart Nicholls keeps the pace moving for the most part, although there are longueurs in the first Act which might have been avoided with cleverer staging choices and brisker delivery. But these are minor irritations.
It is a real pleasure to experience this born-again musical. It is the antithesis of a show like Kinky Boots which succeeds to the extent it does by “issues” and big deal numbers, choreography and costumes; Bar Mitzvah Boy is a smaller, gentler, more involving musical, but it’s message is essentially the same – tolerance is everything.