The Seed of Abraham
nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
August 17, 2011
A student of theater or musical theater learns the word "subtext," which means "the implicit meaning or theme of a literary text". In Act II of The Seed of Abraham, a young man and woman, recently arrived in the Holy Land, sing of their love of Jerusalem. As they sing, they slowly lock hands, embrace, and finally kiss—a textbook illustration of subtext and of a song moving the scene forward.
Most scenes in The Seed of Abraham, created by Kenny Karen and Bob Zaslow and directed by Sally Burtenshaw, could use such subtext. Still, this is a lovely, sweet, pleasant, traditional musical play, very watchable and listenable, at times funny, at times touching.
The story: three young people in a working-class mid-1960s Bronx neighborhood aspire to artsy-craftsy careers, despite their parents' wishes that they pursue the professions. Ben, a former synagogue choirboy, wants to be a cabaret singer. "Since when do you need an agent to go to law school?" his father Joshua argues, and adds, "If God gives you a talent, you owe it to him to use it for him!"
Ben's younger brother Abie wants to hoof it like Sammy Davis Jr., and Leah, the attractive neighbor girl whom both brothers love, aspires to journalism. Ben receives a letter of acceptance from an agent; Abie, from a dance troupe; and Leah, from a tabloid newspaper. Soon Ben moves to the 92nd Street Y ("In Manhattan?!" says his shocked mother Miriam). Leah, growing disgusted with writing "filthy" gossip, is reluctant to accept Ben's marriage proposal. However, just before the Six Day War, the three attend a Y event in which a speaker quotes the President of Iran: "Israel is an error that must be rectified," and claims the U.S. is too embroiled in Vietnam to help Israel. This news converts at least one of the three, who now pursues a purpose beyond personal glory, saying "God's not helping Israel by himself!"
I suspect that composer-lyricist-musical director Karen and librettist Zaslow have a special affection for Fiddler on the Roof, because parallels keep showing up here. There's the "Tradition" moment, the opening when a Mailman leads the neighbors in listing the charms of their time and place in "The Old Bronx Cheer." There's the "Matchmaker" moment as the three youngsters reveal their dreams in "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet"; the "Sabbath Prayer" moment as Miriam praises her heirloom Shabbos "Candlesticks"; the "Far from the Home I Love" moment as a character departs; the "Miracle of Miracles"/"Now I Have Everything" moment in the aforementioned "Jerusalem is Mine"; even the "Anatevka" moment in reverse as the relocated characters sing the title tune. This isn't a criticism, just a observation.
There's plenty of talent shown: the songs "God of My Father," "Jerusalem is Mine," and "The Seed of Abraham" could have a life outside the show. However, in too many songs the characters are commenting as in asides, rather than moving the plot forward. The show crams each space with song, every revelation or conflict is an opportunity to stop and sing. It needs more dialogue, more rhythms of rest.
Barry DuBois sings well enough as Ben. Caleb Teicher (who also choreographs) as Abie displays some outstanding dance talent, tapping, even spinning in air. Joey Ama Dio as Leah is pretty and acts quite well, but sometimes sings too softly. John Anthony Lopez's operatic tenor threatens to break out at times; he is funny and poignant as Joshua. Other cast members include Denise DeMirjian (Miriam), Walt Frasier (Mailman/Speaker/Nightclub Owner), Amy Beth Williams (the funny Frieda, Leah's mom), Jonathan Kline (Morrie, Leah's dad), and Ricky Alan Saunders (chorus).
Some scenes in The Seed of Abraham are deep and moving, but most, while entertaining, offer little more than what is on the surface; I'd expected more. Still, the show is good enough, and its creative talent promises more and better in the future.