Mysteries of appearances. Deceptions of the heart. Androgynies of the soul. These are no longer dated topics held applicable to only women of the Jewish faith. As Theater J opens its 18th season with an invigorating and refreshing new production of Yentl, theatergoers are compelled to reflect upon the change for everyone that this particular show inspires. Directed by Shirley Serotsky with Musical Direction by Jonathan Tuzman, this strikingly beautiful tale is a remarkable work, relatable to anyone who has ever had to hide any part of their true identity for any reason. Written by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer, with Music and Lyrics by Jill Sobule and Additional Songs provided by Robin Eaton, this touching tale will open your mind, free your heart, and unleash your soul in ways that shows how far we have come as human beings in society.
Conceptually, Set Designer Robbie Hayes is a visionary. Two rows of ancient tomes flank the proscenium on the left and the right with the stage itself situated between them like an open book ready to be read. The symbolic representation that knowledge will flow forth from the traffic of the stage is a brilliant layering of creativity struck into Hayes’ design work. The set itself is every scholar’s fantasy; two stories of books to hone their knowledge upon all laid out with a reverence to the practice of study.
Lighting Designer Andrew Cissna augments moments of drama with intensity in his design work. There are striking moments during segments of song or speech that become jarring or aesthetically stunning because the lighting hits the actors upon the stage in just the right fashion. One such moment that comes immediately to mind is during “The Last Candle” a solo featuring the title character and the subdued blue lighting, blended with the lone flicker of her individual candle, casts shadows of remorse and anguish over her face.
To tell a tale is one thing; to tell a tale with music makes it a woven story that is accessible to all. Having the members of the orchestra live upon the stage, coming and going as ensemble characters weaves the universal language into the play in a flawless manner. With revitalizing pop/rock/klezmer orchestrations, the music brings this classic tale to a modern audience in a style most relatable. The topics within become more relevant hearing them sung with modernity. The songs themselves smack of modern Broadway— a strong belting score laid in for the women with powerhouse voices, gentle indie-rocker sounds to most of the up-tempo numbers.
The talent across the board in this production is impressive to say the least. Aside from mastering Yiddish, reading and reciting holy prayers and scripture with precision, these performers capture the essence of characters in the daily life of struggle. Whether it is the stereotype of a stern and masterful Jewish Mother, seen in Frumka (Amy McWilliams) or the milder appeasing papa figure who wishes only to please his daughter, witnessed in both Reb Todrus (Jesse Terrill) and Reb Alter (Sasha Olinick) these fully developed individuals shine throughout the performance.
A scene stealer of note though he only appears briefly is Sheftel the Tailor (Joe Brack.) Kvetching and moaning, everything from Brack’s posture to his voice smacks of overkill in the most hilarious way possible for this character. His momentary interaction with Anshel derives a great deal of laughter from the audience over a simple pair of pants.
The performance is populated with phenomenal powerhouse female vocalists; a testament to the fact that women can achieve great things now that the world has changed. Judith Ingber, belts out a brilliant rendition of “My Sister, My Bride” at the end of Act I. Shanta Parasuraman, in multiple roles including playing the guitar, leads off one of the most intense musical numbers in the show, “I Hate Girl Things.” Her voice has just the right level of classical sound and pop modern edge to really set a blaze beneath this tune. The harmonies alone in this trio make the number easily one of the most driven in the production.
That is not to say that the men in this production are less impressive; though they do have fewer singing opportunities to prove their voices. Sasha Olinick, as the father of sweet Hadass (Sara Dabney Tisdale) shares a brilliant duet with Amy McWilliams in “Tomorrow is Breaking.” The song is solemn and filled with bittersweet sorrows that reveal the true troubles of any life struggles. But it’s Avigdor (Michael Kevin Darnall) who shines as a male performer in this production.
Though Darnall sings really only one number, a duet with Anshel/Yentl (Shayna Blass) featured near the end of the production, “Life Goes on Without You”, and his voice is impressive; it is his acting abilities that really transcend the character. With a good-natured personality, Darnall creates a congenial existence, though his moments of emotional extrapolation are no less poignant for his easy-going nature. The camaraderie and immediate intense involvement with Anshel is a palpable, albeit touchy, sensation that threads its way throughout the course of the story.
Blass, as the title character, gives a revolutionary performance. Appearing first as a timid yet studious Anshel, the audience witnesses her blossom into a fiery and defiant woman, pushing for her rights to learn. The candle that blazes up within her soul makes her fierce. During the scene where she insists on giving prayer over the loss of her father she is an unstoppable force whose spirit radiates across the stage with a vehement passion. Her song voice is sublime as well; a true modern day beltress in an alto and comfortable lower range. Songs like “Oh Shit” and “One Kiss” become noted for Blass singing the introductions. Mastering what it means to hide ones’ self inside of a constructed fictitious figment, Blass gives the performance of the season in this role.
It is a play of self discovery. It is a musical of celebration. It is a story that we can all relate to. Theatre J is creating art; making waves, and redefining what it means to be not just Jewish, not just a woman, but what it means to be a human being.
Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission
Yentl plays through October 5, 2014 at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center— 1529 16th Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 518-9400 or purchase them online.