Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2007
Party Come Here is a lively and intriguing new musical with a book by Daniel Goldfarb and music and lyrics by David Kirschenbaum being given a very fine production under the direction of Christopher Ashley on the Nikos Stage at the WTF. When I first saw the title I was afraid that this was going to be a “revue-iscal,” a glorified, self-congratulatory cabaret, so I was very pleased and relieved to discover that this was an entirely original work, a charming little “book-musical” about, of all things, the importance of faith in our lives.
Goldfarb’s title for his non-musical play which served as the basis for this show was Jack, Jesus, and the Brazilian Marrano. Marrano was a derogatory term, literally meaning “Pig,” for a Jew who converted to Catholicism to escape death in the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. Many Marranos never stopped practicing Judaism in secret.
Jack is the hapless Jack Weinberg (Hunter Foster) a weak-willed young New Yorker who is not very good at anything, especially the magic tricks he practices constantly. Jack is the son of a self-absorbed Jew, Wood (Adam Heller), now living in a golden house in Rio with his young Catholic, Brazilian wife, Volere (Chaunteé Schuler), and a non-Jewish former Olympic ski champion, Liberty (Kaitlin Hopkins), who is now a world-class chef in New York City. As the show opens Jack is about to marry a very blonde Shiksa named Kate (Kate Reinders) who has rated him a 17 (out of a possible 25) on her scale for potential mates. After Kate halts the wedding at the altar, she and Jack take off for Rio to meet his father.
The Brazilian Marrano is Orlando da Sylva (Malcolm Gets) a 500-year-old Portuguese Jew hiding in a cave on the beach in Rio. As long as he stays in hiding, his fear will keep him young. In the cave, he lives forever but all alone. Outside he will rapidly age and die. Jack is sent out on the beach to buy limes because his father wants to make Caipirinhas (the national cocktail of Brazil for which the WTF helpfully provides the recipe in the program) and that’s where he meets Orlando. Jack has plenty to hide from in his life, and he stays several days in Orlando’s cave.
And Jesus is the famous ten-story tall stone statue of Christ the Redeemer that sits atop Cocovado Mountain overlooking the city of Rio di Janeiro. Completed in 1931 the statue was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a list compiled by the Swiss-based The New Open World Corporation less than three weeks before Party Come Here opened in Williamstown. In the course of the play we learn of a legend that when a blind man is made to see again, the statue will bring its enormous, outstretched arms together and clap.
But Jesus is also Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Christ. For Volere, Jesus is a very real and important part of her life, she converses with him daily. For Orlando, Jesus is the name under which the Jews were persecuted. Orlando keeps the trappings of his faith - his Shabbat candles, prayer shawl and yarmulke – as carefully concealed as he keeps himself. When love brings Volere and Orlando together he finally ventures out of his cave, losing his eye-sight and ultimately his life as he ages rapidly.
Complicated, yes? By the end of Act I Jack is presumed lost as he hides out with Orlando in his cave, and Wood and Kate have commenced an affair, which, when she learns of it, prompts Volere to ask Jesus for advice. Jesus says “Call Liberty.” So she does, and in Act II Liberty arrives in Rio armed with a ski pole, her ubiquitous cigarette, and the personal snowfall that follows her everywhere.
Throughout all of this loopy mayhem there are some solid messages about the need for faith, both in yourself and in a higher power, to get through this crazy thing called life. In the end Jack or Jesus or both or neither summon up a maelstrom in which the whiney Kate gets struck by lightning and Jack’s eyes are fully opened to who, and what, matters. A miracle! Followed by another miracle. Yes, you guessed it, that statue claps.
This show is a work in progress and, one suspects, part of a package deal that brought both Party Come Here and actress Kate Jennings Grant (who is playing Elvira in the Main Stage production of Blithe Spirit) to the WTF. Grant introduced Kirschenbaum and Goldfarb, who immediately hit it off and started collaborating. Nepotism is alive and well, but that’s not always a bad thing, in this case bringing an interesting new musical with a phenomenal cast, and an attractive actress to the Berkshires. Party Come Here was previously presented at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s 2005 Festival of New Musicals and the 2006 New York Musical Theatre Festival. Foster and Hopkins seem to be the stalwarts who have stuck with this show for the past three years.
When people asked me about Party Come Here the first thing out of my mouth is “They have REAL Broadway stars!” This causes people to look at me funny because no one cares about Broadway stars, real or otherwise, these days. They want to see faces familiar from TV and movies, but to me seeing Hunter Foster, Malcolm Gets, and Kristin-Chenoweth-doppelganger Kate Reinders exercise their considerable talents up close and personal in the intimate confines of the Nikos Stage was thrilling. And those are just the big names. Heller and Hopkins are also wonderful in their roles. And the gyrating ensemble of Jordan Barbour, Alphonzo Duncan, Kate Robert, and Sarah Turner aren’t too shabby either.
Kirschenbaum’s music is lively and in some cases memorable, a mix of traditional Jewish and Brazilian sounds that are occasionally derivative (a woman next to me exited Act I humming what she thought was a tune she had just heard but which was actually the bridge from If I Were A Rich Man) and sometimes cliché. I have to say that I found the opening number Miracles Happen a let-down after an exciting opening image and the promise of South American rhythms. “This sounds just like typical Broadway show music,” I thought. But things picked up from there. Making the Leap the number which covers Jack and Kate’s disastrous near-miss of a wedding is hilarious and moves the story along smartly, as do several other numbers, such as That’s What I Want, Volere’s Prayer, Woman on a Rampage, and, my personal favorite, Vision of Beauty, the number in which, after having spotted Volere, Orlando’s loins literally drag him out of hiding hips first.
A disappointment was the title song to which all the words, except the phrase “the party come here,” are indecipherable.
Foster gives Jack a depth and reality that holds the sometimes scattered action of this show together, and Gets is simply marvelous. But you are supposed to like Jack and Orlando, and Volere who gets an oddly limp interpretation from the stunning and statuesque Schuler. To make us like the uber-bitch Liberty is a real trick, but Hopkins does it. Heller gives his all to the thoroughly unlikable Wood, as Reinders does to the self-centered and slatternly Kate.
G. W. Mercier has designed the endlessly flexible set pieces, including a cave that travels with Orlando, the Statue of Liberty, and, of course, various versions of Christ the Redeemer. Once again there is sand on the Nikos Stage (do you suppose they just saved it from Villa America?) My only objection was that fan they used for the penultimate storm scene. Umm, we could all SEE the stage hand in the front row holding the fan. Couldn’t wind either have been produced from off-stage or, if you wanted the audience to see the source, couldn’t those four cheerfully dancing chorus members who brought so many other items on and off stage have wheeled in some REALLY big fans? It would have been funnier. This way it just looked cheap and lame.
Howell Binkley has designed the innovative lighting and Jim van Bergen handled the sound design, which is very clever and effective. The seamless choreography is by Dan Knechtges. A three-piece orchestra, conducted by pianist Vadim Feichtner, provides the music live and on stage.
I have heard rumblings that people consider this show to be anti-Semitic. Well, there is an Act II number entitled Everybody Hates and you can fill in the blank there, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Kirschenbaum and Goldfarb might have some Jewish blood themselves and it is generally considered okay to make fun of your own ethnic group/religion but not anybody else’s. A lot of fun is had at the expense of the Roman Catholics here too, and I don’t hear them complaining. The show seemed to me pro-religion in general, which will probably upset people who claim that there is only one true religion and it is the one they practice. I felt that the show was saying that faith is important and that different people are strengthened by their personal faith in different ways.
Party Come Here runs through August 5 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes and is suitable for ages 13 and up. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007