As the full cast sashays about the stage in their finely detailed turn-of-the-century attire, happily working their way through the opening number (“Ladies of the Backstreet”), this new musical by Santa Monica Playhouse mainstays Chris DeCarlo, Evelyn Rudie and Matt Wrather is reminiscent of such good-old-days comedies as “Ah Wilderness!” and “High Button Shoes.” Set in 1905, the antiseptic, clean-cut aura of this tale of a Jewish brothel in a New York City ghetto never communicates the stated danger the “ladies” face from the owner of the house, the ever-brooding Uncle (John Waroff). Further hampering the proceedings are an unfo-cused and over-written text, a vocally inconsistent ensemble and the static staging of DeCarlo.
The action centers on aging courtesan Hindl (Rudie), who yearns to move out of Uncle’s house and into one of her own. Her dreams of independence are severely limited by her gender and ethnicity, which make it highly unlikely she would ever be able to own property, despite the efforts of her shady gentleman friend, Shloyme (DeCarlo). Further complicating her life are the arrival from Europe of young nephew Eli (Wrather) and Hindl’s desire to save Uncle’s virginal daughter, Rivkele, (Morgan Kibby) from being forced into a respectable but loveless marriage.
The relentlessly diatonic music and overly expositional lyrics of Rudie and Wrather sound more like extended recitative than songs. An exception is the melodious ode to first love “The Summer of My 14th Year,” performed with a haunting sadness by backstreet lady Basha (Sheila Yates). Unfortunately, not all the voices in this 10-member cast are as consistent as hers.
Kibby never manages to stay in tune with Rivkele’s lament, “Papa, Dearest Papa” or the playful “Sir Knight,” a duet with the equally pitch-challenged Wrather. DeCarlo and Rudie also demonstrate shaky intonation with “Secrets” and the first act closer, “Achel Pachel.”
A decided plus to the production, however, are the performances of Yates and the other ladies, Lipshele (Debra Fortunato), Manke (Kimberly Ann Johnson), Ryzl (Edie Magoun) and Ruth (Sharon Webster), who add much-needed musical vitality to such ensemble numbers as “Why Do They Always Come Here?, “5 O’Clock in the Morning,” “A Wedding in the Family” and “The Ceremony.”
The pre-recorded score and sound design of Rudie and Wrather is inventive but occasionally overpowers the onstage action. The modular, Victorian setting of Chris Beyries is attractive but often proves clumsy during the scene changes. The most mood-enhancing elements to this production are the magnificently correct period costumes of Ashley Hayes and Cheryl Jennings.