John Bonanni took to the stage of the Nancy Marine Studio Theatre for probably one of the last times as Executive Director to welcome the audience to The Gefilte Fish Chronicles - The Musical, to "the table of tradition." He was clearly proud to have been instrumental in bringing another original work to the Warner, as he had done last year with the premiere of the musical that made number one on my list of the top ten for the year, Liberty. He also noted that both the authors and composers are still alive, not often the case with shows done at the Warner, and he introduced two of them sitting in the audience.
Director Katherine Ray echoed the joy of taking on a new show and reminded us that this is a work in progress, but added that this was not an excuse; it simply gives the actors the chance to invent their own roles. She writes that the show "transcends ethnicity and religion, it's every family's story: of joys and heartache, the memories that amass our family chronicle." This is from the audition notice for the show:
First there was the acclaimed documentary and now there is...The musical 5,000 years in the making! THE GEFILTE FISH CHRONICLES is a loving and comical look at one extended family’s celebration of tradition and food! Based on the documentary directed by David Burnett and produced by Iris Burnett, THE GEFILTE FISH CHRONICLES focuses on the unbroken traditions and ceremonial foods of an extended family that has gathered annually for Passover for more than 100 years. The descendants of Abe and Minnie Dubroff gather in Newburgh, N.Y., to cook, eat, pray, eat some more, reminisce. And eat some more.
Opening night's audience was almost full, but I managed to purchase a ticket for a seat in the third row on house right at the last minute (thanks to the ever-helpful Melissa.) The set designed by Sharon A. Wilcox was simple but evoked New York in the fifties. The large projection screen at the top of back of the stage featured illustrations by Jenny Kroik that helped move the story along. Wonderful costumes by Renee Purdy added authenticity as well.
The story is that fiftyish Rebecca (Cat Heidel) returns to the home of her recently passed mother Goldie (Sara Dobrinich) where she meets up with the family photographer Rudy Wexler (Pat Spaulding) and her grown daughter Madison (Lana Peck.) Together they remember the history of Rebecca's family: Goldie's fraternal twin sisters Basha (Mary J. Johnson) and Pearlie (Suzanne Powers,) her only brother Uncle Jake (Joe Harding,) Basha's husband Larry Yusbah (Jimmy Donohue) and her own husband Sidney Katz (Stephen Michelsson.) Lana Peck also plays Rebecca as a young girl, as well as an hysterical, very old Rabbi Epstein. The story is sweet and every member of the audience could relate to it, but Jewish theatergoers probably laughed just a little bit more. The opening night audience appreciated every song and funny line.
The small cast are all community theatre pros. Ms. Heidel is a heartwarming Rebecca with a wonderful singing voice. Ms. Dobrinich, who had the best hair, is a glamorous Goldie and Ms. Powers is glorious as the artistic Aunt Pearlie. As the eldest sister Basha, Ms. Johnson is as wonderful as always; she is the only member of the cast that appeared in that other original work that debuted at the Warner, the aforementioned Liberty.
Mr. Donohue (Miracle on 34th Street,) in his Warner debut, is terrific in the comic role of Larry. Mr. Spaulding is very good in the character role of the photographer and I realized what a wonderful tenor voice Mr. Michelsson has (recently the non-singing Paul in Moon Over Buffalo) as he sang in this role as Rebecca's father. Mr. Harding grabbed onto the role of Uncle Jake and was another strong singer.
The music in the show was charming and did not detract from the story. The numbers include "The Tale of Pincus Dubroff," "Tap a Little Recipe," and "When I Go to War." I especially enjoyed the ones with a Hebrew sound. The great orchestra was enthusiastically directed at this performance by the gentleman who wrote the orchestrations, James Higgins, while the music director was Holly J. McCann. They sat to the side of the stage and included the talented Beckie Scattergood Wallace on Keyboard II. Ms. Wilcox also provided the choreography.
The accomplished Ms. Ray has directed the show as if it were her own. Overall this is a sweet piece with some great song and dance numbers that packs a punch in the heartstrings. Gefilte Fish Chronicles continues next weekend. Tickets are $26 and can be purchased by calling the Warner box office at 860-489-7180 or online at www.warnertheatre.org.