Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review.
There can surely be no better time to revive a musical that combines the skills of Jule Styne and Don Black than 2016. Composer Styne’s Gypsy and Funny Girl have been successfully revived in West End transfer productions, while Black’s lyrics can be heard in both Mrs Henderson Presents and, shortly to open further down St Martin’s Lane, Sunset Boulevard.
So Bar Mitzvah Boy’s revival now – its first major production since a short-lived West End run in 1978 – feels appropriate. And while the original production was a larger scale affair (directed by Martin Charnin, fresh from his success at directing Annie) the smaller Fringe atmosphere at Upstairs at the Gatehouse feels more appropriate to a musical based on Jack Rosenthal’s endearingly funny BBC teleplay of the same name.
As can be ascertained from the title, Bar Mitzvah Boy centres around 13-year-old Eliot (Adam Bregman), who is preparing for his bar mitzvah, the occasion at which he will be deemed to have become a man. As the day approaches, Eliot worries about what being a man means – but around him, his family are far more stressed about the lavish evening dinner-dance than in their son’s worries.
While the setting is around a ceremony that is uniquely Jewish, this is a story that is universal – those occasions where the anxieties of a social occasion press down on emotion like a pressure cooker, until something explodes.
By setting this story around an event that allows Rosenthal’s book, Black’s lyrics and Styne’s music to each exploit the creatives’ own Jewish heritage, though, the result is a musical which feels fresh, invigorating and timeless. Even though the setting is 1970, as evinced by designer Grace Smart’s sets and costumes with a dominance of browns and oranges, only the lack of mobile phones prevents this from looking like a play for today.
Rosenthal’s book retains the sharply observed comedy of his original play – and, indeed, adapts much of it song-free for stretches longer than most musicals would dare. That enables the family dynamic to play out much more effectively, with Sue Kelvin and Robert Maskell as Eliot’s parents in particular combining stereotype with well-rounded portrayals to great effect.
That is not to say that there is a scarcity of music – far from it. Styne’s melodies draw on Jewish musical heritage, both directly and with an air of American vaudeville (itself shaped by the New York Yiddish community), backing the vocalists to great effect. Black’s lyrics, meanwhile, flit between comedic and heartfelt with a nimbleness that matches Rosenthal’s book.
Most impressive in her vocal performance is Lara Stubbs as Eliot’s sister Lesley, holding the family together through all their crises, particularly as she bonds with her brother in the Act II number ‘You Wouldn’t Be You’. Meanwhile, Kelvin’s larger than life Jewish mother has a voice to match, whether reminiscing fondly with her husband in the sweet ‘We’ve Done Alright’ or bewailing the precarious social situation the family finds itself in ‘Rita’s Request’.
But it is down to Bregman as Eliot, the titular bar mitzvah boy, to give the show its heart. His performance is as low-key as his relatives are highly strung, and this approach provides a refreshing amount of breathing space at crucial points. Bregman’s singing style feels like a natural extension of his speaking voice, with the effect that his solo numbers feel more heartfelt.
The small family living room scale that this production provides certainly works in the show’s favour. Unless one was there in 1978, one can only imagine what Martin Charnin’s larger scale vision would have done to the story.
On the evidence here, it wouldn’t have improved it. In paring the show back to a Fringe size, director Stewart Nicholls has helped Bar Mitzvah Boy finds its place in the world. At the sprightly age of 38 years, this is a musical that has finally grown up.