‘Yentl’: Pop music in the shtetl


Back row, from left, Shanta Parasuraman, Jesse Terrill, Lindsay Elizabeth Williams, Mark Bergman and Brandon McCoy. Front row, from left, Shayna Blass and Michael Kevin Darnall in the Theater J production of "Yentl." (Stan Barouh)

Like its audacious heroine, the new stage version of “Yentl” gets itself into a bit of a pickle. To Isaac Bashevis Singer’s tale of a young, knowledge-craving Jewish woman who disguises herself as a yeshiva boy has been added a pop score by Jill Sobule and Robin Eaton that strives to give the evening some contemporary verve.

“Oh s---!,” Yentl sings, in one of many melodic moments that do not so much recall Barbra Streisand’s notoriously schmaltzy 1983 film as Broadway’s “Spring Awakening,” the 2006 musical that turned the sexually stifled teens of Frank Wedekind’s 19th-century German play into rockers.

What hasn’t been resolved sufficiently in Theater J’s production is the matter of balance, a knitting of genres on the more skillful level of “Spring Awakening.” The “Awakening” kids sing in a modern idiom as a manifestation of rebelliousness; why the villagers in a hidebound Polish shtetl do is far less satisfactorily justified. As a result, this overlong, awkwardly encumbered “Yentl” — with a script based on Singer’s tale “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” credited to both Leah Napolin and Singer — comes across more like a body with two brains: a play and a musical of clashing styles forced to inhabit the same space.

The story has enough charm and this Yentl, played by a convincingly gender-blurring Shayna Blass, enough presence to stand on their own. As the 21 / 2-hour show unfolds, you may, as I did, try to imagine the evening without the intrusion of the jarring, fragmentary songs, which occasionally seem to arise out of characters’ minds but more often merely announce a thematic motif. (The townsfolk gathering, for instance, to sing about change or unity.)

The most rewarding moments of this “Yentl,” then, are the ones in which the production simply allows the consequences of Yentl’s elaborate masquerade to reveal themselves. The only daughter of a dying scholar (Jesse Terrill), Blass’s Yentl strikes out on her own in the guise of an Orthodox male student, her singular goal being the study of the holy word, a right denied to her gender in early 20th-century Europe. The Torah, though, soon has a rival for her affections: the strapping Avigdor (an amiably self-effacing Michael Kevin Darnall), who is in love with Hadass (Sara Dabney Tisdale). Singer’s farcically wry construct instead propels Yentl into a marriage to Hadass, throwing open questions about how far we go in pursuit of happiness and what aspects of each other we truly desire.

On Robbie Hayes’s library set, a literary interior suggesting that the owlish Yentl can never quite get out of her own head, director Shirley Serotsky valiantly tries to assemble the disparate moving parts of “Yentl.” Although the actors doubling as musicians are deftly deployed, her staging of the numbers — in concert with choreographer Laura Schandelmeier — is oftentimes wooden, with singers advancing in flanks or winding across the stage conga-style. That the amount of exposition feels excessive is reflected in an endless rearranging of tables and benches to represent bedrooms, schoolrooms and houses of worship.

Although some of the Hebrew prayers sound wildly inauthentic out of the actors’ mouths, the cast by and large agreeably populates the Nobel Prize-winning Singer’s world. (Serotsky pays homage to another famous Yiddish writer through visual references to “Fiddler on the Roof,” based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories.) Judith Ingber is particularly good in portraying various shtetl women, especially Pesha, the stony local shopkeeper whom Avigdor marries for purely practical reasons.

Blass shoulders the evening’s heaviest responsibilities, and she does so commendably, even if one might want to see her inject a stronger sense of the sexual tension Yentl is experiencing. Then again, maybe not. This “Yentl” already has enough to worry about.

Yentl

By Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer, music and lyrics by Jill Sobule. Additional songs, Robin Eaton. Directed by Shirley Serotsky. Orchestrations and music direction, Jonathan Tuzman; choreography, Laura Schandelmeier; set, Robbie Hayes; lighting, Andrew Cissna; sound, Palmer Hefferan; costumes, Kendra Rai; fight director, Cliff Williams. With Amy McWilliams, Brandon McCoy, Sasha Olinick, Joe Brack, Judith Ingber, Shanta Parasuraman, Mark Bergman, Shane O’Loughlin, Lindsay Elizabeth Williams. Through Oct. 5 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit www.theaterj.org or call 800-494-8497. $35-$65. About 21 / 2 hours.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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