Review: Shlemiel the First

This piece on Shlemiel the First appears in the December 12, 2011 issue of The New Yorker. If you have a subscription to the magazine online, you may read it here.

Critic’s Notebook

December 12, 2011

Hey Diga Diga!

by John Lahr

All fans of the American musical who are sick of boulevard nihilism, movie retreads, choreographic cliché, dopey lyrics, and banal librettos, your ship has come in: “Shlemiel the First,” the terrific 1994 klezmer musical, adapted by Robert Brustein from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s, is being revived, Dec. 13-31, at the Skirball.

David Gordon’s elegant production, set in the surreal shtetl landscape of Chelm, jolts an audience out of the habitual. Shlemiel, its eponyous beadle hero (Michael Iannucci), is a “crazy fool,” according to his wife (Amy Warren). He is called upon to spread the wisdom of Groman Ox, the wisest man of the village council of sages, who earned the laurel by solving a sour-cream shortage. The musical (with splendid lyric by Arnold Weinstein, and music by Hankus Netsky) is a wacky, inspired recounting of his hapless missionary journey. In its artfulness and eloquence, “Shlemiel the First” is better by far than anything currently on Broadway. It returns the musical to its playful, populist roots. Miss it at your peril.