Bound as close as pages in a book, Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern forged a life together as dealers of rare volumes. As a candidate for dramatization, their story would appear to be a rather dusty collection of reminiscences — and the thought of musicalization seems even more remote. However, in its world premiere from New Jersey Repertory Company, “Bookends” spins the women’s memoir into a disarming musical narrative, braced by an infectiously sweet score and acted with refreshing vigor by an appealing cast.
The narrative, while crowded at times, spans eight decades, beginning as the antiquarians ponder retirement and recall pivotal moments in their long lives. As written by Katharine Houghton, both book and lyrics reveal the romanticism of youth, the determination of two impressionable Jewish girls who ponder the wonders of the past and worldly matters, the comfort of a lasting friendship, and “the women they were meant to be.”
The pivotal roles are well structured with keenly contrasted performances. As the senior business companions, Susan G. Bob is wonderfully crusty as Leona, in contrast to Kathleen Goldpaugh’s warm apple-pie Madeleine.
As their adventurous younger selves, credited with the discovery of some saucy Louisa May Alcott tomes, Jenny Vallancourt makes a worldly Leona and Robyn Kemp a girl-next-door Mady. Vallancourt returns to N.J. Rep following an acclaimed performance in D.W. Gregory’s “October 1962” last fall. Here she offers a telling study of an eager student in a Strasbourg library under Nazi threat.
In an amusing turn as Leona’s very married guide, Alan Souza defines “Fingerspitzengelfuhl” as a rare talent for intuitively telling if a book is really rare.
Set to music and lyrics by Dianne Adams and James McDowell, with additional lyrics by Houghton, the songs keenly illustrate life’s most rewarding moments, its ironies and unfulfilled passion, and the bonding values of a lasting friendship.
“Waiting for Mr. Right” is a bright expectation of a sublime honeymoon, and there’s exquisite longing in “Just Look at Him,” urgently revealed by Vallancourt and reprised by a hopelessly smitten Eric Collins as “Just Look at Her.” The bond between the girls is revealed in “I’ve Found a Friend,” and there’s a bright dash of irreverent humor in “Mary Magdalene’s Blues,” when a seductive Eileen Tepper queries, “Who do you think washed the dishes after the last supper?”
“Holmes and Watson” is a fanciful diversion, delightfully rendered by a quartet of sappy fictional gumshoes who reveal the pleasures of devouring a good thriller. Finale finds a young novice, brightly played by Pamela Bob in a knockout turn, who as heir to the literary legacy sings “There’s Nothing New Under the Sun.”
The score is admirably played by pianist Henry Aaronson with a plaintive lilt, but it’s easy to imagine and hunger for a string section.
A few bookshelves serve as the setting, leaving the small stage to the large cast, which is required to play multiple roles that demand the attention of an alert audience. Ken Jenkins’ acute staging works well within the somewhat cramped space but a more expansive production would help the show. “Bookends” has a promising future, its cinematic thrust suggesting a quaint musical film of the old school.