Family intrigue, ghosts safely tucked away in the proverbial closet, and palpable angst over interpretations of the truth are the leading themes in the new musical “Goldstein” currently playing at the Actors Temple Theater on West 47th Street.
The audience assembled between the narrow stained glassed walls of this historical house of worship represent the vortex of the 65 plus Jewish set; eager to imbibe a cogent narrative of intergenerational joy and strife that is highly relatable.
Predicated on a 20-year old book by Charlie Schulman, a musical score by Michael Roberts and direction by Brad Rouse, what is presented in “Goldstein” is essentially a well meaning but hackneyed plot line in the theatrical corpus of family dramas that have morphed into musicals. The multi-talented ensemble cast, however, does a yeoman’s job in expressing the gamut of raw emotions through the dense fog of somber tunes and mediocre staging.
There are no show stoppers here in terms of “belt it out” Broadway tunes, and the purportedly pithy lyrics struggle to capture our attention. The delightful news is that the female leads (namely Amie Bemowitz and Megan McGinnis) shine with reverence as their mellifluous and disciplined voices remind us of what kind of tremendous potential off-Broadway musicals possess.
At the outset, we are introduced to the protagonist; a lanky young, gay Jewish author named Louis Goldstein, (played by Zal Owen who starred as Motel the tailor in Fiddler on the Roof). He has decided to blow the lid off of his antecedents’ murky and complex past in a tell-all book, (circa 1981) which also happens to be eponymously named for the progenitor of the family. We later learn that even his surname was not safe from the seething cauldron of nefarious distortions as his grandfather Louie for whom he is named (played by Jim Stanek) makes a painful but candid admission that the surname Rudolph which he used was indeed fabricated.
Louis Goldstein has recently been awarded a Pulitzer Prize in literature and his family conundrums have piqued the curiosity of Oprah Winfrey as she anointed the book as one of her famous “picks.”
When Louis’ elderly aunt Sherri, (played by Megan McGinnis) who is apparently suffering from dementia and is being cared for by Louis’ sister Miriam (played by Julie Benko) catches wind of what she believes are malevolent fallacies at best in the book, she strongly challenges Louis’s perception of the truth. She watches with a critical eye from her wheelchair as the genesis of the family she thought she knew unfolds before her.
Her mother Zelda (played by Amie Bermowitz) is about to embark on a new life in the “Golden Medina” better known in common parlance as America. As many Jewish immigrants departing from anti-Semitic European hotbeds in the late 1800s and early 1900s, she is bursting at the seams with a palpable anticipation. While on the ship taking her to unchartered paths she meets “the most handsome man I have ever seen.” Falling in love at blinding speed, her intended (who is heading to join family in Chicago, while Zelda takes refuge with her brother Phil and sister-in-law Irene in New Jersey) promises to write her and send for her once he is settled.
Hopes for a lifetime of love however are abruptly dashed when she never hears from him again. We later discover that slave driving sister-in-law Irene had been hiding the letters from Zelda’s beau.
Soon thereafter Zelda meets Louie Rudolph and stoically puts the pain of heartbreak behind her as she heads for the chuppah. Bermowitz brilliantly illustrates the hard working ethos of a bygone era as she passionately infuses Zelda with a no-nonsense attitude and an unrelenting drive to succeed.
As she and Louie toil away at the women’s dress shop in Newark, this “fractious narrative” takes on a new life when her husband admits that he is an army deserter (or as he opaquely implies; adopts a conscientious objector status due to his socialist credo). Wracked with guilt over his ill conceived decisions, he explains to Zelda that he feels compelled to turn himself in to the authorities and spend a year in jail, but not before dropping the bomb that his real last name is Goldstein.
Certainly a lot of shocking info for a wife to digest at one clip, but Bermowitz rises to the occasion and deftly carries the resilient Zelda, who is seemingly devoid of emotion, to a new level of inner fortitude.
After Louie gets sprung from the joint he takes his pro-creative responsibilities seriously and Zelda gives birth to daughter Sherri and then son Nathan (played by Aaron Galligan-Stierle.
We watch the children grow into young adults, all the while imbued with unique Goldstein family values. Sherri’s budding love affair with a local young man (also played by Zal Owen) who joins the Navy at the beginning of World War II never comes to fruition as he is killed in the line of duty. What makes it even more devastating is that brother Nathan was the squad commander and deals with the all encompassing guilt of knowing that the life of the only man that his sister will ever love was snuffed out under his watch.
Sherri’s litany of disappointments don’t end there, however. A stellar academic achiever, Sherri has her sights set on attending medical school on a full scholarship but that decision is a big “no-no” in the patriarchal era that the Goldsteins lived in. As he upbraids Sherri for the choices she makes on the trajectory of life, father Louie rails at her, “If you spent as much time looking for a husband as you do pouring over those books, you’d be out of this house.” Supportive of his sister’s choices, Nathan is keenly cognizant that Sherri is deserving of the kind of career opportunities that would have been afforded her had she not have been a born female. Notwithstanding this flicker of moral uprightness, Nathan takes his sister’s place in medical school, going on to become a well respected psychiatrist.
Nathan soon meets and marries the feisty Eleanor (played by Sarah Beth Pfeifer). Upon their initial introduction, Zelda blurts out “but she doesn’t look Jewish.” Suffice it to say, the two never meshed and the one humorous song in the play “Visiting Your Mother” yells out Eleanor’s frustrations at the weekly visitation ritual to New Jersey.
The inevitability of death does not escape original production modalities, as father Louie walks off the stage and in to the next world. Nathan and Eleanor name their son after him and soon thereafter sister Miriam joins the Goldstein clan. Never out of the limelight or the stage too long is Aunt Sherri who takes care of widowed mother Zelda.
Young Louis suffers his button down 1950s style family values when confronting the fact that he is gay and dealing with the repercussions of his parents’ deeply ingrained shame. Adding salt to the wounds, grandma Zelda refuses to allow Louis to play dress up anymore with the female attire in the store as an alarm goes off in her head that something is definitely not kosher in Goldsteinville.
One gets the gnawing feeling that the dam is on the verge of bursting before Zelda walks off the stage to join Louie in the final rest stop of this trenchant journey called life. It is at this pivotal juncture that Louis vividly recalls that his grandma had shown him the letters from her first love that were hidden from her by Irene. Aunt Sherri does not demur from spewing for her increasing rancor at what she feels are bald faced lies. In her mind, the facts were as clear as radiant sunshine. Her mother loved no one except her father and any nephew of hers who dared to challenge this assumption, especially in the public square must be taken to task.
Miriam eventually marries, Nathan and Eleanor traverse to the heavenly domain, and Louis continues on his book tour. The audience learns that the wounds of quirky family enigmas must be healed through practiced forgiveness, unceasing love and the ability to rise above the pain that is inherent while navigating the vicissitudes of life.
By: Fern Sidman
(“Goldstein” is playing at the Actors Temple Theater at 339 West 47th Street until July 2018. Tickets can be purchased online through Telecharge or at the theater box office at 212-246-0100)