Review: Stars of David

by Lynn on May 24, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

Stars of David

At the Studio Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Based on the book by Abigail Pogrebin.
Conceived by Aaron Harnick and Abigail Pogrebin.
Directed by Avery Saltzman.
Designed by Scott Penner.
Lighting by Siobhán Sleath.
Original projection design by Michael Clark
Musical Director, Mark Camilleri
Starring: Darrin Baker, Gabi Epstein, Lisa Horner, Will Lamond

Produced by Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company in association with Angelwalk Theatre.

A thoughtful, funny, often moving account of what it means to be Jewish from the point of view of many prominent Jews, told in song.

Stars of David started as a book by Abigail Pogrebin, who interviewed prominent Jews about being Jewish; people such as writer-feminist, Gloria Steinem, lyricists, Marilyn and Alan Bergman, playwright Tony Kushnir, jurist Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actor Leonard Nemoy, writer Aaron Sorkin, and businessman Edgar Bronfman.

Abigail Pogrebin and fellow writer Aaron Harnick then conceived of the idea of turning the book into a musical review. The essence of each interview was then set to music with lyrics written by some of the best composers and lyricists writing today.

While many of the songs are witty and funny, the main gist of the show is to illustrate how important Judaism, its traditions, and beliefs are to those interviewed. In some cases the traditions provided a difficult hurdle.

The haunting, moving song “As If I Weren’t There,” is a case in point. (Music by Tom Kitt, Lyrics by Abigail Pogrebin). When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was 17, the day before she graduated high school, her mother died. She adored her mother. She told Ginsburg that she could do and be anything. Unfortunately that did not mean saying Kaddish with the men when the family sat shiva. Young Ruth was desperate to join the minion and pray for her mother but her father forbade it saying that the laws of Judaism had to be obeyed—women were not allowed to say Kaddish with the men. An ironic comment since Ruth Bader Ginsburg grew up to become a judge on the Supreme Court of the United States.

Writer-Feminist, Gloria Steinem inspired the song “The Women Who Had No Names”, music by Jeanine Tesori , Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. A group of women get together at Passover to cook and conduct their seder, without any men. Somewhere there is a Jewish law or rule that says that’s not right, but these women don’t care. Their aim in the song is to champion and remember the unsung heroes in their lives—their mothers. It is quite moving to hear “I am Abigail, daughter of Letty….” And know they are the words of Abigail Pogrebin singing about her mother Letty Cottin Pogrebin, writer and co-founder of Ms Magazine among others. And to hear Gloria Steinem championing her mother.

“Lenny the Great” (music by Dan Messé, lyrics by Nathan Tysen) is about young Leonard Nemoy who was bullied when he was a kid but through sheer grit grew up, lives long and prospers. Nemoy is noted for creating the character of Spock on Star Trek —his particular Vulcan salute, a definite space between the first two fingers and the last two fingers on the hand is based on the Priestly Blessing in Judaism.

Both designer Kenneth Cole and businessman Edgar Bronfman wanted to know more about their religion so they could pass that knowledge to their children and grandchildren. Cole and his Catholic wife agreed the children should be raised Catholic. But then he began thinking of Judaism and wanted to educate his children in that tradition but first had to learn about it himself. This feeling is beautifully expressed in “The Darkening Blue” (music by Duncan Sheik, Lyrics by Steven Sater.)

Bronfman says that his father prayed all the time but didn’t have a clue what he was actually saying in the Hebrew prayers. Bronfman didn’t want to be in that situation with his grandchildren so he began to learn about Judaism. In the moving and emotional song “L’Dor V’Dor” (music by Chris Miller, Lyrics by Nathan Tysen) we learn about passing on to the next generation the traditions and essence of Judaism. That’s how it survives.

Of course it’s not all serious. In “Smart People” (music by David Shire and lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr.) Aaron Sorkin deals with the stereotypes that think Jews are smart, witty, successful etc. Every time it looks like a lyric will result in the word Jew rhyming with it, the lyrics go off on another, hilarious tangent.

The song “Gwyneth Paltrow” (music by Gaby Alter, Lyrics by Jill Kargman) deals with all those people you didn’t know were Jewish, as in “who-knew-Jews” (Gwyneth Paltrow! Harrison Ford! James Franco!)

There are 15 songs, each dealing with the words and thoughts of distinguished people, all of whom happened to be Jewish. Avery Saltzman has directed the gifted cast of four efficiently, simply and without fussiness. Because of that the music and thoughts are beautifully served.

The cast is very strong. Gabi Epstein can squeeze the heart singing the wonderful “As If I Weren’t There”, and then crack you up with “Gwyneth Paltrow” (who knew?). Lisa Horner is a lively, boisterous performer in “High Holy Days” about Joan Rivers—who knows a thing or two about being lively and boisterous. But then Horner to could be quietly moving with “Balance” (Music and Lyrics by Alan Schmuckler) that tells the story of restaurant critic Ruth Reichl’s family and how they survived the war. The men also acquit themselves beautifully. Darrin Baker expresses the confliction and finally peace of Kenneth Cole in “The Darkening Blue.” And Will Lamond nails the difficult “Smart People” with charm, energy and grace.

Stars of David is a smart, sweet, moving, show of songs, words and thoughts of Jews. And no you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy and revel in its message. Of course it wouldn’t hurt.

Opened: May 10, 2014
Closes: June 1, 2014
Cast: 4; 2 men, 2 women
Running Time: 90 minutes approx.

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1 sandra pitblado May 24, 2014 at 12:17 pm

I like it already! What a good idea and it keeps us all in the loop. we don’t even have to take a newspaper. Love you.xoxox