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Friday, March 28, 2008

The Orphan Queen

We interrupt our usual movie reviews to talk about a remarkable play we all saw several times last week. (Hey, it’s our family’s blog, so we can do what we want with it.) So without further interruption…

The Orphan Queen

Last Saturday night, our family went to the Concord opening of The Orphan Queen, a musical written by Temple Isaiah’s of Lexington’s Cantor Robbie Solomon based on The Book of Ester. On Sunday, my wife and younger son dropped off our older boy (who plays turbaned 3rd grader #2 in the play) and decided to watch the first act again before heading off to swimming lessons. Driving away from Temple Isaiah during intermission, they both realized that tears were welling up in their eyes and before they made it past Lexington Center they were banging a U-turn in a mad rush to get back to temple in time to see all of Act II, swimming be damned.

How good was Orphan Queen? To paraphrase another critic from another story, watching this show one could not help but feel that you were staring directly into an absolute beauty.

Those familiar with Cantor Solomon’s work, especially with his band Safam, know he is comfortable working in a wide variety of musical genres. And with the exception of acid punk and Tuvan throat singing, there does not seem to be a single style that goes unused in Orphan Queen, from the calypso rumba of Everybody Loves a Party to the torch song showstopper I Am a Woman, to jazz, choral, easy-listening and, of course, the Megilah chant.

In addition to delightful musical diversity, the play’s success rested on three pillars, the first being the characterization of the leads. Jews have been writing and producing bawdy Purim shpiels since the 14th century, so most of us are familiar with the main characters of the holiday: the foolish King Ahashveros, the severely put-upon Queen Vashti, wicked Haman, virtuous Mordechai and beautiful Esther. Or at the very least, we know these people as caricatures or placeholders for comic Purim parodies.

Orphan Queen, however, is a straight telling of the Purim tale and Solomon’s script wisely highlights serious adult themes, even within the framework of musical family entertainment. Vashti’s exile, to site one example, causes both the king and former queen to reflect on the pride and fate that has led them to part ways, despite their continued love for one another in the moving number What Was I to Do? Similarly, the king’s romancing of the much younger Esther, often the source of ridicule or at least queasiness for modern audiences, is presented with great tenderness, making Orphan Queen – among other things – a powerful love story.

The second pillar of strength for the show is the cast. When cantor, actor and co-director Rosalie Gerut as Queen Vashti belted out I Am a Woman shortly into the first act, her Broadway-class singing voice and stage presence confirmed for the audience that they were in for a wild ride. Moshe Waldoks, Rabbi at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline and co-editor of The Big Book of Jewish Humor was an interesting choice for King Ahashveros. When I saw the show on closing night at Rabbi Waldoks’ temple in Brookline, one could sense whiplash in the audience as they careened from laughing at their rabbi’s comic mugging, to being gripped by the serious drama King Ahashveros brought to the stage via his sonorous voice and songs.

Like a Bond movie, a Purim story rises or falls based on the villain, and Haman is one of the trickier bad guys to bring to life. On the one hand, he’s the would-be architect of genocide and yet everyone knows who gets it in the end. Actor David Mitchell straddled this fairly broad line between Adolph Hitler and Wile E. Coyote by ratcheting up the menace in the first act, then gradually adding more comic elements to the character as fate’s anvil came closer and closer to his pointy hat.

We’ll get to Cantor Solomon’s portrayal of Mordechai later, but first a word on Anika Benkov’s Esther. This thirteen-year-old actress and singer certainly showed both the singing and acting chops to keep up with the rest of the experienced cast. More importantly, her guileless demeanor helped bring to life a much more complex Esther than we’re used to from yearly Megilah readings. Those tellings (especially coupled with contemporary interpretation) tend to emphasize Esther’s bravery, yet Orphan Queen’s Esther is a young girl who must discover adulthood, love, courage and faith all within a few scenes. Benkov’s ability to rise to this challenge was her greatest triumph on stage. Rosalie Gerut originated Ester’s role in 1997 and returned years later to play Vashti in this year’s production (a la Carol Burnett’s voyage from Princess Fred to Queen Aggravaine in Once Upon a Mattress). One hopes that Benkov will get the chance to make this show part of her life again sometime in the future.

In addition to cast and character, the ability to transcend comes from the play’s composition. In addition to the main cast, Orphan Queen makes use of two talented choruses: one of adults, one of children. The kid’s chorus moves the story along with jazzy narration, while the adult group, which fills in for the supporting cast, is also used as a stand-in for the Jewish people (a message powerfully delivered in the song What Have You Done? which ends the first act).

The show is bracketed by a series of ingenious reprises sung by these three singing units: the two choruses and main cast. The aforementioned What Was I to Do?, sung when the king and his wife Vashti departed in the first act is paired with What Am I to Do? sung by the king and his new bride Esther in the second act as the two of them confront a very different fate.

Solomon’s entire creation reaches culmination in the show-stopping number Purim Parade in which Mordechai rides the king’s white horse while his people celebrate and Haman stews. The kids chuckled as the hand-puppet horse kept pecking at Haman swollen head, yet the drama being played out in that song was far from childish. The scene is set, after all, on the day before Mordechai and all of the Jewish people will be slaughtered on the king’s order. The audience knows, of course, that it is the Jews who will be saved and Haman brought down, but the characters do not. Thus Haman spends the song issuing villainous threats with moustache-twirling glee, yet Mordechai and his people (including the children’s chorus which disbursed into the audience for this number) are singing about the absolute perfect joy that wells up from their faith in a loving God. Poised between triumph and disaster, Mordechai sings for all to join him to celebrate, “Praise the Lord” and recognize that love and joy are all around us. It is at this point that you realize that Cantor Solomon is not simply playing Mordechai. He is Mordechai: a mensch whose talents helped bring a constantly retold story back to its roots for the benefit of all.

When a fun show closes, the cast will shed a tear knowing they won’t ever be together in quite the same way. When a great show closes, the audience shares their melancholy, knowing they will never see such a performance for the first time again. There were a lot of wet eyes in Concord, Lexington and Brookline this last weekend thanks to the entire cast and all of those who made this production a reality. Thanks to everyone involved for the special gift of The Orphan Queen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Told ya you had the right venue for this review....

John G.