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A Night in the Old Marketplace

With 20 songs and an onstage klezmer band -- tuba, accordion and all -- you'd expect this musical to be, well, musical.

With 20 songs and an onstage klezmer band — tuba, accordion and all — you’d expect this musical to be, well, musical. But with a score as leaden as its book is confused, “A Night in the Old Marketplace” provides way too little entertainment. Based on I.L. Peretz’s surrealist verse play, written in Yiddish in 1906, this adaptation by Frank London and Glen Berger tries to combine High Modernism with Low Borscht Belt. But it takes more than a minor key and a couple of mazel tovs to make Yiddish theater.

The plot begins in backstory: Sheyndele (Deborah Grausman) was forced to marry a rich old merchant (Guil Fisher). After the wedding, she throws herself into the village well and drowns. Her lover, Nosn (Steven Rattazzi), becomes a grieving drunk, while the merchant becomes a recluse accompanied by a giant bear. The Badkhn (Ray Wills), the jester who told too many cruel jokes at the wedding, feels guilty. Disgusted by the poverty and misery of the world, he decides to “fix” things by creating a revolution against God.

The Badkhn somehow conjures the local gargoyle into life with a torch song of embarrassing vulgarity. It works. The Gargoyle (Charlotte Cohn) turns out to be a sexy, nasty club Goth who can bring the dead back to life. There is much zombie-walking mingled with big, old-timey projections of kosher butchers chopping the heads off cows. The one real song, the melodic duet “It Doesn’t Matter,” is a brief reunion of Sheyndele and Nosn. But ultimately, the dead go back to being dead.

The songs are so odd that nobody on opening night seemed to know when to applaud (is it over?), and the self-consciously complicated lyrics combine intellectual pretensions with vaudevillian flops (among the dead, there’s an informer who holds his tongue in his hand and then offers it to make a sandwich).

Meanwhile, in the midst of all this hokey blundering, there are to-die-for costumes designed by Levi Okunov, the latest 21-year-old darling of the New York fashionistas. Striped aprons and overalls echoing the stripes of the Jewish prayer shawl, triple lapels, startling colors, gunmetal sheers, raggedy ruffles — this looks like a collection of downtown chic: what the well dressed in the shtetl will be wearing next season.

A Night in the Old Marketplace

Prince Music Theater, Philadelphia; 450 seats; $55 top

  • Production: A Prince Music Theater presentation of a musical in one act with music by Frank London, book and lyrics by Glen Berger, based on the Yiddish play by I.L. Peretz. Conceived and directed by Alexandra Aron. Music direction, Eric Barnes. Choreography, Karen Getz.
  • Crew: Sets, Lauren Helpern; costumes, Levi Okunov; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Nick Kourtides; animation, Tine Kindermann, Mor Erlich; production stage manager, Michael Andrew Rodgers. Opened, reviewed Oct. 6, 2007. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.
  • Cast: The Badkhn - Ray Wills The Recluse - Guil Fisher Gargoyle - Charlotte Cohn Sheyndele - Deborah Grausman Nosn - Steven Rattazzi <b>With:</b> Melinda Blake, Mathew F. Burrow, Elisa Matthews, Nicholas F. Saverine. Musicians: Eric Barnes, Skip Heller, Lidia Kaminska, Gregg Mervine, Jim Parker.
  • Music By: