A Jew Grows in Brooklyn
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 25, 2006
When Betty Smith wrote her now-famous novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn back in 1943, the title was meant to convey something utterly unexpected: a a living thing with roots and branches and leaves bursting out of the concrete in a crowded city.
Now Jake Ehrenreich has appropriated Smith's title for his new one-man musical, A Jew Grows in Brooklyn. The resulting show turns out to be as unsurprising as its eponymous premise. Is a Jew growing up in Brooklyn in the second half of the 20th century such an uncommon occurrence?
Actually, in Ehrenreich's case, it might have been. Ehrenreich's parents were Holocaust survivors who emigrated to the United States in 1949; they had both escaped their Polish homeland ten years before that, as the Nazis were about to invade, and spent World War II in a workcamp in Siberia. They married, had two daughters, and then after four years surviving postwar Displaced Persons camps made their way to New York City. Their son Yankel (Americanized to Jacob) was born in 1956.
This is a singular and important story, one that most Americans don't have much experience with. (How, for example, did his parents wind up in Russian work camps? How did they manage to stay together? How did they find their American relatives after having disappeared for some ten years?) Unfortunately, Ehrenreich barely tells it beyond the outline I've provided here.
Instead, he uses A Jew Grows in Brooklyn (which is about 90 minutes long, padded out to nearly two hours with an unnecessary intermission) to bask in the familiar. Most of his show's first act recalls a pretty typical Baby Boomer adolescence filled with rock 'n' roll and embarrassment about his traditional parents: the one revelation he shares is his prideful discovery that many of his favorite songs, from Christmas tunes like "White Christmas" to pop tunes like Manfred Mann's "Doowah Diddy," were written by Jews. (Ehrenreich assures us that every song in A Jew Grows in Brooklyn was written by a member of his faith, though he fails to provide proper credit for any of them in the program.)
Virtually all of the second act is a re-creation of life in the Catskill Mountains, as he takes on the persona of a "Borscht Belt" tummler, the social director/entertainment coordinator/emcee who was de rigueur at the Jewish resorts there, though surely at 50 years old Ehrenreich is too young to remember the heyday of this phenomenon. He races around the stage in a variety of tasteless dinner jackets, tells terrible jokes, harangues people in the audience, sings the Yiddish song "Romania" and the Sinatra song "Witchcraft," and, at one point, plays the trumpet, trombone, and the drums in rapid succession. He gets the ingratiating attitude of the tummler exactly right, and also alas the second-rate-ness: in this section of his show, Ehrenreich comes across as nothing so much as a boyish dilettante working shamelessly to please his audience.
That the show concludes with slides of his own wedding (to Lisa Ehrenreich, billed as the show's costume designer) only cements the indulgent nature of the whole affair.
Ehrenreich is not without talent, and there's certainly nothing wrong with the flimsy nostalgia he provides for his target audience of middle-aged or older Jews who also grew up in Brooklyn (or somewhere nearby). But don't expect much in the way of insight or personal revelation. Ehrenreich has at least a few interesting stories he could tell about what it really was like to be the child of Holocaust survivors or the experiences that transformed him, as an adult, from a fairly secular wannabe music/Broadway star to a devout Jew in search of his roots. The title promises some of this but the show hardly delivers, and that's disappointing.
Ehrenreich is backed by a four-piece orchestra led by Elysa Sunshine which does a fine job accompanying him. A few props plus a screen on which is projected photos and slides of other family memorabilia decorate the stage; these modest production values are all appropriate to the piece though perhaps not to the $67.50 ticket price.