Marvelous musical performances in Minnesota Jewish Theatre's premiere

Minneapolis Star Tribune - February 23, 2009
by John Townsend

You don't have to be Jewish or speak Yiddish to get the humor in "Chutzpah A Go-Go." But if you arrive early at St. Paul's Hillcrest Center Theater you can read a funny glossary insert called verhtehbrook, Yiddish for "dictionary," before you catch some laughs in this Canadian revue's U.S. premiere presented by Minnesota Jewish Theatre.

Playwrights David Gale and Randy Vancourt's 1993 spoof is a zany combination of "The Joys of Yiddish" and a retrospective on Jewish life over a century in the fictional setting of Bubkes, N.D. When a group of community actors, descendants of Jewish immigrants, are mistakenly booked into a church auditorium, they don't let it crimp their style. Gale and Vancourt also wrote the music and lyrics.

Gale himself has directed the MJTC production with a strong sense of vaudeville that hits with comic pizzazz. This production injects a juicy comment that Saturday night's audience adored: "You Minnesota Jews are doing well! Two of you run for U.S. Senate and you both win!" Not to mention knowing references to "St. Jewish Park" and "Angina," also known as St. Louis Park and Edina.

Chet Taylor revels in the show's many moments of naughty mischief, from copping squeezes of a lady's oversized breasts to comments on bodily functions. Along with Joe Bombard, he dazzles in a tongue-twisting duet about Jewish surnames.

Adena Brumer's feminist salute to a woman who challenged traditional Jewish gender-based expectations is quite moving. The show's best segment is Teri Parker-Brown's turn as a tipsy torch singer in the solo, "When I Was Young." Hilarious, yet haunting.

Kevin Dutcher's splendid music direction captures Judaism's vibrant klezmer folk music tradition. Vin Parker's zestful drumming and Rebecca Erickson's marvelously exuberant clarinet radiate with pure joy. Whenever the four actors sing in quartet they're simply superb, and at times, even celestial.

'Chutzpah a go-go' is worth a go!

Pioneer Press - February 24th, 2009
by Quinton Skinner

The first number after the intermission in David Gale and Randy Vancourt's musical ably sums up its humble charms. The four-person ensemble, dressed in Israeli blue and white, performs the "Shalom Dancers Medley," mugging, hoofing to a klezmer beat, slapping and grabbing each other with mock irritation, and generally painting exaggerated daubs of emotion to a limited canvas.

Staged by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, "Chutzpah a go-go" sets up its premise early. Our quartet of performers make up the Bubkes Jewish Community Players, the creative fruit of a town in North Dakota celebrating its immigrant roots. The twist here is that their dotty manager has booked them into a Catholic church in St. Paul (their three-piece backing band has ostensibly been drafted from the church and compelled to learn Jewish folk music on the fly).

The show opts not to focus too strongly upon it, seesawing instead between musical numbers and short monologues describing slices of life for Jewish immigrants who fled Eastern Europe for the promise of the American prairie. We thus segue, without much strain, between stories of small town struggle and choreographed interludes variously lamenting and celebrating Bat Mitzvahs and the cornball yuks of Borscht Belt humor.

"Chutzpah" has previously been produced in Canada, and it resonates neatly with the Upper Midwest (you've seen one tundra, you've seen them all, one supposes). And while the focus of the monologues is entirely regional (tweaked here to include mention of the Homestead Act period, along with a few local references), the musical element of the show relies heavily on Yiddish references, easygoing humor and a consistently self-mocking tone.

There are a couple of shots at greater depth, particularly via a song about the American dream sung by Barbara (Teri Parker-Brown) and Daniel (Chet Taylor), portraying a couple viewing a new world with memories fresh from the shtetl. Later Chavey (Adena Brumer) leans into "Sarah," with the perspective of the next generation, whose values have changed through assimilation. Each works as a snapshot, lending voice to a particular set of historical circumstances.

These small-scale stories will resonate with a Minnesota audience, Jewish or otherwise, because they tap into shared regional memory without resorting to didactic storytelling.

There's chutzpah on display here, in this two hours of easy laughs and gentle wordplay.  And if there are no grand universal themes to be found in tunes about keeping kosher and senior citizens' package tours to Israel, so be it. No need to kvetch.