NY Review: 'A Letter to Harvey Milk'

U Shld Only Kno Productions at the Pershing Square Signature Center as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival

Reviewed by Erik Haagensen

July 26, 2012


Photo by Billy Bustamante
The new musical "A Letter to Harvey Milk" combines such stark subject matter as the titular politician's assassination and the Holocaust with cute Yiddish humor and earnest Hallmark sentimentality to queasy effect. If it weren't for the quietly truthful, mercifully understated performances of Jeff Keller and Leslie Kritzer, which cut confidently through all the goo, "Milk" would curdle completely.

With a book by Jerry James, lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz, and music by Laura I. Kramer, the show is an adaptation of Lesléa Newman's acclaimed 1988 short story, which tells of the growing friendship of Harry, a widowed Holocaust survivor, and Barbara, a young Jewish lesbian writing teacher from whom he is taking a class. She is searching for stories from his generation for highly personal reasons, and he is resisting. She assigns him the task of writing a letter to someone who is no longer alive, and he returns with a missive to Harvey Milk, the gay San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated in 1978.

It seems they met when Harry patronized Harvey's famous Castro Street photo shop, then became friends because Harvey in turn began shopping at Harry's nearby kosher butcher store. Barbara is elated, as Harvey is a hero to her; his death motivated her to come out to her parents, who haven't spoken to her in the eight years since. Barbara is inspired by Harry's letter to write a piece about it that a gay magazine wants to publish. But they want the letter to go along with it. Will the stubbornly private Harry agree? Not until we learn what he's hiding, of course.

As there's very little dramatic action inherent in such a scenario, the authors try to compensate with a surfeit of backstory about both characters, which only emphasizes the stasis. A major annoyance is Harry's dead wife, Frannie, supposedly awakened by his screaming after a recurring nightmare. Frannie hectors and whines on the fringes, insisting far too often, "Don't tell her nothing you never told me" (which naturally means that Harry will before the show is over). Her humor is grating and obvious. (Frannie: "I'm no Shylock Holmes." Harry: "Sherlock Holmes." Frannie: "Him too.") The talented Cheryl Stern is stuck playing her, but even Stern can't save a song such as "What a Shanda," Frannie's frantic reaction to realizing that Barbara is gay, from being a desperate dud. Indeed, Kramer's score is mostly uninspired pastiche, and Schwartz's sing-song lyrics are dotted with rhymes visible a mile off and filled with generic and cloying locutions ("The night you died/San Francisco cried"; "If enough of us hold hands/No one can hold a gun").

As Harry, Keller is emotionally compelling in his choices and endows the butcher with welcome dignity. Keller even surmounts director David Schechter's cheesy staging of Harry's climactic Holocaust revelation, complete with snarling Nazi officer and cowering concentration-camp victim, both in full period regalia. (It's telling that the climactic moment is not musicalized. It should have been.) Kritzer's Barbara is quietly lovely, charmingly direct, and appropriately vulnerable. Michael Bartoli gets to make a few appearances as Harvey, and it feels as if he has just stepped in from a Disney flick.

"A Letter to Harvey Milk" is my sixth and final visit to this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival. If these shows are really the best of what's out there, all I can say is what a shanda.

Presented by U Shld Only Kno Productions as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., NYC. July 25–28. Remaining performances: Thu., July 26, 9 p.m.; Sat., July 28, 5 and 9 p.m. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, or www.nymf.org. Casting by Judy Henderson.
 

 
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