Tryna Rytza Musical numbers: “Wake-Up Song,” “We’re Talking Chelm,” “Yenta’s Blintzes,” “Beadle With a Dreydl,” “He’s Going to Die,” “Mrs. Shlemiel’s Lament,” “Geography Song” (“Rumania, Rumania”), “My One and Only Shlemiel,” “Rascal’s Song,” “My One and Only Shlemiel” (reprise), “Meshugah,” “Twos,” “The Screen Song,” “Can This Be Hell?,” “Matters of the Heart,” “Wisdom,” “We’re Talking Chelm” (reprise).
It isn’t exactly “Yidl With His Fiddle.” Nor is it “Fiddler on the Roof.” But this new Isaac Bashevis Singer klezmer musical bears a close family resemblance as it crosses over from Yiddish to English carrying much of its original impish folk humor and wisdom, plus toe-tapping klezmer tunes. Tightened by 10 minutes and rid of its interrupting intermission, it could become a highly entertaining 90-minute family musical with a lusty life in resident and children’s theaters, though Boston’s Klezmer Conservatory Band is such an integral part of it that it might be hard to perform completely successfully without such experienced klezmer musicians.
Singer based his play “Shlemiel the First” on his Chelm folk tales in which men are fools and women are wise. It’s to the credit of the musical adaptation that it remains so aptly unpretentious in Robert Brustein’s book and Arnold Weinstein and David Gordon’s rhyming lyrics (kvetch and wretch, for instance). At its best it’s childlike in the purest sense; at its worst it topples over into noisy childishness. Cutting could remedy the latter, as could a firmer directorial hand where way-too-broad overacting is concerned.
But director/choreographer Gordon has done a whale of a job staging the musical, almost always keeping it moving, notably in the “Geography Song,” with its sit-down song-and-dance number for the town of Chelm’s “wise” men and their chairs, and in a travel sequence in which trees, rocks and klezmer musicians are hauled across the teetering up-hill-and-down-dale stage on pieces of cloth.
The plot is folk simple: Chelm’s lazy, crazy beadle, Shlemiel (Larry Block), is sent out into the wide world to sing the praises of Chelm’s wisdom, particularly that of its self-appointed wisest of the wise, Gronam Ox (Charles Levin). But a devilish Chaim Rascal (Remo Airaldi) misdirects Shlemiel back to Chelm, where he and its wise men decide that there must be two Chelms and therefore a Shlemiel the First and Second, wreaking havoc on Shlemiel’s marriage. All ends happily, even romantically.
The catchy score has been cleverly adapted from traditional klezmer tunes by Klezmer Conservatory Band leader Hankus Netsky with the telling inclusion of Aaron Lebedeff’s “Rumania, Rumania” as the “Geography Song.” Netsky also has incorporated melodies of his own, Zalmen Mlotek adding further music and arrangements as well as conducting the wondrous pit and onstage musicians with endless zest.
If one comes out of “Shlemiel the First” humming something from “Fiddler on the Roof,” it’s simply because “Fiddler” took a close look at such klezmer music. As for the musical as a whole, “Shlemiel” is further evidence of how much Jewish and klezmer have been absorbed into the mainstream. It’s all surprisingly familiar, the musical’s multicultural moral being a combination of “the truth is always the best swindle” and “what fools these mortals be.”
The ART cast, playing both men and women (calling for fast onstage costume changes), works with joyful vigor even if it does sometimes get out of hand. In the title role, which ideally needs a Danny Kaye, Block is endearing and occasionally evokes Kaye without having his center-stage stature. He also tends to be overshadowed by Levin’s Gronam Ox, who is big both physically and theatrically.
Marilyn Sokol is as cheerfully broad and obvious as ever in her three mostly jolly roles. Remo Airaldi, a chubby gnome with a sunburst face, is enchantingly idiosyncratic in all his manifestations. And Rosalie Gerut as Mrs. Shlemiel manages subtlety under unsubtle circumstances, and sings sweetly.
Robert Israel’s skewed, childlike sets and Catherine Zuber’s costumes, which include women’s dresses with built-in breasts, add to the production’s picture-book quality. “Shlemiel the First” may be a small musical, but at its best it’s an ingratiatingly happy one.