As scripted and helmed by Mitchell Uscher, with music by Roy Singer, this simplistic tuner is more reminiscent of a feel-good musical review from one of the Borsht Belt resorts Grandma Sonya (Jane Strauss) extols in the second act ballad, “Grossinger’s, Concord, Brown’s and the Pines.” At its heart, “Mamaleh!” celebrates the joys and foibles of Jewish motherhood and the connection between generations of females who adhere to the same beliefs, rituals and traditions. This tuner would be more successful if the four-member ensemble offered more restraint while communicating its schmaltzy sentiment.
The show’s sketchy dramatic throughline is built around one of the weekly card games held in the home of Frieda (Susan Denaker), a happily married empty nester who is contemplating making the big move to Florida. Frieda shares her home with archetypal Jewish grandma Sonya, who dispenses her barbed wisdom whether it is asked for or not. Visiting is Frieda’s daughter, Debra (Jennifer Gordon) who has recently made Sonya a great grandmother. Completing the quartet is Frieda’s childhood friend Maddie (Susan Dohan), a hard-edged, coifed-to-the-max career woman who has been unlucky in love all her life.
The derivative 21-number score mostly serves to heavy-handedly underscore the interactions of the group as they gossip, philosophize, reminisce, come to terms with their fragile mortality and plan for the future. The songs that work best give in to the sentiment without wallowing in it.
The full cast offers a nicely harmonized acknowledgement of their friendship (“It’s Really Nice to Know That You’re Around”). Strauss’ Sonya sadly recalls her youth, before bat mitzvahs, when she yearned to receive the religious education denied to Jewish girls (“In My Day”). Later, Sonya and Frieda pay tribute to the great influence Sonya’s mother had on both their lives (“Grandma’s Hands”). The most successful ensemble number features Gordon and the cast in a boogie-woogie ode to dating the summer resort help (“Waiting for the Waiter”). The satirical production numbers do not fare as well, especially Deborah Geffner’s overly choreographed salute to the wonders of vacationing in Florida (“Boca”), Auntie Vy’s (Dohan) ragingly over-the-top anthem to senior life in the Sunshine State (“The State of the State of Florida”) and a badly harmonized, “The Out-to-Lunch Bunch.”
“Mamaleh!” is further undermined by an under-volume pre-recorded electronic keyboard accompaniment that sounds like it is coming from another room.