If you like Broadway musicals, you’ll REALLY like TammDan-Hassett’s production of You Can’t Stop That Spiel! playing this weekend at Temple B’nai Sholom. It’s a rollicking fun hour of theatre, with more winks and nods to show tunes than should be possible in 60 minutes. This is a wonderful cultural event as well. For the gentiles out there, part of the Jewish religious calendar is the festival of purim, during which they celebrate being saved from extermination at the hands of the Persian king around 400-500 BC. As one rabbinical quote in my research put it, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”
Christians would know it as the book of Esther, the story of an orphaned Jewish girl, who is adopted by her cousin Mordecai, and taken to live in the Persian capital. A few years later, the king kicks out his queen for refusing to parade her goods in front of the court. Esther catches his eye, and he makes her the new queen, though he doesn’t know she’s Jewish. Mordecai gets a job as a palace guard, but even though he prevents an assassination plot against the king, he soon angers Haman, the prime minister, by refusing to bow to him. In retaliation, Haman convinces the king to execute all the Jews. The Jews ask Esther to intervene and save them, but she has to be careful, because even the queen is not exempt from the restriction on approaching the king unbidden, on pain of death. Esther pulls it off, convincing the king to spare the Jews, and a new celebration is added to the Jewish calendar.
Purim is more of a national holiday than a religious one, but it does have its celebratory traditions. One of those is the reading of the story every year, which at some point morphed into performing the story, known as a purim spiel. The spiel is a comic dramatization of the story, which this particular production certainly is, with emphasis on “comic”. The playwright, Norman Roth, who is a New York accountant by day, is obviously a huge fan of Broadway theatre, and has written a score or more spiel scripts over the years, all of which take show tunes for their inspiration. This particular version, You Can’t Stop That Spiel!, pulls inspiration from a good dozen different shows, with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
The overall staging of the show is well done. Fred Tamm-Daniels’ direction is straightforward, and uses the space well. This is the seventh purim spiel directed by Tamm-Daniels, and maybe for next year the team can work on helping the cast “finish” the numbers–the subtle art of posing and holding for applause at the end of songs. There were several times the play moved on before the audience was ready to give the well-deserved acclamation. That said, this production doesn’t call for deep character development or subtle hidden themes, but rather keeping the action moving and the feeling light, which Tamm-Daniels and his assistant, Sue Hassett, accomplished masterfully.
The cast is filled with beautiful singing voices of all ages, and they are clearly having a good time up there, which always adds to the audience’s enjoyment. Some of the show tunes being borrowed from required a little more technical skill than the cast was capable of mastering, so there are times when the projection and enunciation could have been better, but it’s still an enjoyable collection of songs.
Jeff Lapidus, as “King Ahasuerus”, commands the stage, and manages to perfectly portray the necessary royal presence while giving the audience a regular nudge in the ribs. Mary Beth Taylor, as “Esther” is possibly the least animated person on the stage, but still has a gorgeous singing voice and manages to accomplish her portion of the story-telling. Starr Weems de Graffenried is absolutely wonderful in the part of the rejected “Queen Vashti”, belting our her songs, and mining her dialogue for every nugget of humor. Travis Davis needs to learn to hold for applause, but otherwise really nails his portrayal of “Mordecai”, singing very well, and delivering his lines to full effect.
Jervon Niska’s music direction and keyboard accompaniment were excellent. Along with Terry Owens on drums, the music helped the cast along when needed, and drove the action forward at a nice pace, never drowning out the lyrics.
The technical elements are simple, as one would expect for a production in a working religious space, but are completely sufficient for the production. It is likely not necessary for the setting and costume choices to be explained to the audience during the curtain speech, but Tamm-Daniels at least managed to work in a couple extra jokes while doing so.
The sad news is that there is only one more performance left of You Can’t Stop That Spiel! tonight at 7 PM, at 103 Lincoln St. SE. Show up early for a ticket, because seating is limited. But do show up.