MACCABEAT "The Hanukkah Musical"
nytheatre.com review by Shelley Molad
September 26, 2007
I vaguely remember taking a school field trip to see a Chanukah musical when I was four or five. As far as I can recall, Judah and the Maccabees discovered a small jug of oil behind a black curtain, and they lit a candle that miraculously lasted eight days. At least, this is the story as I remember it. MACCABEAT "The Hanukkah Musical" presents quite a different take on the traditional tale.
Narrator Jason of Cyrene, played by Jonas Cohen, takes us back to 165 BC, to the village of Modin, where life seems pleasant for the Jewish people. In fact, it seems quite fun, until Judah decides to reject the traditions that have been implanted in him to fit in with the seemingly alluring Greek world around him. The trouble starts when he falls for the beautiful Greek princess, daughter of King Antiochus, who convinces him to participate in the Greek Olympics.
The entire company is present for the first big number, "Jason's Tale." As a whole picture, the costuming looks terrific; a couple of the makeshift robes resemble a blanket that could have belonged to my grandmother, but, all in all, the pieces are well designed by Summer Lee Jack. Director Jessica Redish's deft choreography showcases some of the company's dance skills, particularly ensemble member Kevin Curtis, whose swift and agile moves centerstage are impressive.
The second ballad, "Shabbat Shalom," sung by Jeremy Cohen, Ryan G. Dunkin, Jesse Manocherian, and Chris Yonan, in a "doo wop" choirboy style, is cheeky and entertaining. Judah, played by Mitch Dean, is less impressive as the male ingénue. Though he fits the type, young and handsome with a palpable naivete, his voice is a bit unripe. Nevertheless, these qualities somehow make Dean likeable, adding a certain vulnerability that incites us to cheer him in his plight against the idol-worshiping Greeks.
At times the stakes fail to fully materialize, particularly when Judah disrespects and betrays his father, Matisyahu, by refusing to cover his head with a kippah and neglecting to guard the temple to participate in the Greek Olympics. However, when Matisyahu reprimands his son in the solo, "Judah," it is clear that Howard Kaye conveys his fatherly concern better with his clear vocals than with his humdrum dialogue.
Margaret Anne Florence comes across as charming and sweet as Allura, the Greek princess who falls in love with Judah. She has a lovely voice and plays her devotion to Judah with conviction and determination, even when it's not always reciprocated. Her father, King Antiochus, played by Michael Daly, has a few funny moments, particularly when he attempts to pronounce the "chhh" in chutzpah and occasionally lets out a "chhhh" to the audience's delight.
"Biblical Sense," sung by Kaitlin Stilwell as Rachel and Rachel Frankenthal as Sarah, is both humorous and irreverent―it is exactly the kind of number that makes up for the tawdrier numbers in this musical. Stilwell plays the character of Rachel with a marked edge that is evocative of a biblical-day Sara Silverman.
The staging for the Greek Olympics is comical and creative; it is especially amusing to watch Judah outrun Gargantus, played by a towering Zachary James, who could be mistaken for a member of the Dutch Olympic team. The accompanying number, "Follow the Maccabee," is sung with a liveliness that at times is lacking without the presence of the entire company. The choreography in a later number, "The Decadence," is tastefully provocative, as it depicts the Greek women as seductresses at their notoriously decadent celebrations.
The end of this musical is not difficult to predict (the Jews defeat the Greeks and Judah gets the girl). Jason of Cyrene returns to inform us that the real reason we celebrate Chanukah for eight days is not because the oil kept burning, but because the Jews had to make up for the holiday of Sukkot, which they missed while at war with the Greeks. Perhaps a bit far off from the story I remember as a little girl; I'd still like to think the traditional tale holds true. And I can safely say that, for now, I've had my fill of Ha-Ha-Hanukkah musicals.