by Lynn on May 18, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

l-r Gabi Epstein, Shawn Wright, Patrick Cook, Charlotte Moore

At the Jane Mallett Theatre. Conceived by Avery Saltzman and Tim French. Directed by Avery Saltzman. Choreographed by Tim French. Set and lighting by Phillip Silver. Costumes by Alex Amini. Musical direction and arrangements by Mark Camilleri. On piano: Mark Camilleri and Jeffrey Huard. Starring: Patrick Cook, Gabi Epstein, Charlotte Moore, Shawn Wright.

Produced by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company.

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company is celebrating its fourth year in existence. Over the years it has produced plays that reflect and celebrate the Jewish story—its history, beliefs, struggles and triumphs. The company has wandered from theatre to theatre producing its plays and now has found a permanent home in the Jane Mallett Theatre of the St. Lawrence Centre. To Life is the company’s first musical—a labour of love for Avery Saltzman and Tim French.

To Life is a musical review “that celebrates the Jewish life through song” (as per the program note). The show begins and ends with “To Life” (from Fiddler on the Roof) which sets the theme and tone for the evening. It’s followed by the wonderfully cheeky “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway” from Spamalot, which establishes how important Jews have been to the Broadway musical.

Act One is a compilation of 33 signature hit songs of noted Jewish vaudevillians: Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice and Al Jolson. The company of four singers: Patrick Cook, Gabi Epstein, Charlotte Moore and Shawn Wright belt out such songs as: “Makin Whoopie”, “Ain’t She Sweet,” “My Man,” “You Made Me Love You” “Swannee,” “Mammy,” “Some of These Days,” “My Yiddishe Momma” and “Red Hot Mamma.”

Act Two is composed of 34 carefully selected Broadway songs from such shows as Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Funny Girl, The Grand Tour, and Two By Two, to name a few. The songs reflect aspects of Jewish life such as the traditions (“Tradition”); the importance of sons to a father (“Sons”), the ritual of the Bar Mitzvah (“Why”, “The Bar Mitzvah of Elliott Green”); finding the right man or woman to marry (“Matchmaker”), marrying (“Sunrise, Sunset”); having children (“New Worlds”) and finally death (“An Old Man,” “Hey Girlie”).

Act One is the weaker of the two. Contrary to the program note I don’t believe for a second that this act “celebrates the lives” of those four vaudevillians. Aside from giving us the real names of Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice and Al Jolson and where they were born, we know precious little about them. And the songs they are famous for have almost nothing to do with Jewish life. “Swannee”? “Red Hot Mamma”? “I’d Rather Be Blue?” I don’t think so. If this act was cut entirely it wouldn’t harm the show and would strengthen the theme.

Act Two is the stronger of the two because it clearly celebrates Jewish life from birth to death.

The cast of four sing well, with each having his/her own number in Act One to show off their individual talents. Of the four Shawn Wright is the all round best performer with a keen sense of the meaning of each of his songs and how to convey it with simplicity and economy. But talented though they are, this group of four doesn’t come close to conveying what made Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice or Sophie Tucker so noteable.

In Act Two the group works as an ensemble for the most part.

Co-directors Avery Saltzman and Tim French have created some clever and poignant moments and they keep the show moving seamlessly.

The audience will be familiar with many of the songs in Act Two and the Broadway shows they come from. There are a few surprises as well. All in all a pleasant evening in the theatre. But cut Act One.

To Life plays at the Jane Mallett Theatre until May 29, 2011.

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