Lovers of musical theater who are thirsty for great new shows have been wandering in a production desert for several years. No wonder, then, that even the slightest little sun shower of a show elicits a grateful heavenward glance. Offering a catchy score, modestly inventive lyrics, and a book so full of hokum it can't possibly be taken seriously, Abie's Island Rose has arrived at the Jewish Repertory Theater on East 91st Street. It's a musical with a heart as big as its clichés and a vibrancy that belies its complete lack of credibility. And it's light enough in tone and style to float above its flaws.

Carla Woods and Heather MacRaein Abie's Island Rose
Carla Woods and Heather MacRae
in Abie's Island Rose
Obviously inspired by Anne Nichols' 1922 comedy Abie's Irish Rose, this musical fable updates the story from an Irish/Jewish conflict to something slightly more modern. In Abie's Island Rose, young Jewish nebbish Abie falls in love with an ambitious young black woman, Rose, from the fictitious Caribbean Island of Tornados. Both Abie's single Jewish mother and Rose's single father are vehemently opposed to the match, and do everything they can to destroy it--without attributing their motives to racial bias. Abie's domineering, meddling mom says as much in "Liberal," a satirical number that exposes her hypocrisy. By the same token, Rose's father is against the relationship because he believes Abie will rob Rose and her children of their heritage. This sweet and airy show pretends to avoid the issue of racism, yet reflects it through the code words of our time.

The central conflict of the show is laid out in an engaging opening number, "Two Islands." One island is Manhattan and the other is Tornados, but these are also meant metaphorically to represent the gulf that between the Feinmans and the Hyacinth. The musical's conceit, however, is that it takes none of this more seriously than the plot device of a romantic comedy. Jim Morgan's colorful and playful set design enhances the fanciful nature of the show. We know instantly that the only reason Abie is traveling to Tornados is to meet Rose, not to go to medical school. Sure enough, he soon meets "That Girl"--and it isn't Marlo Thomas. (The song "That Girl" is cleverly reprised later with a comic, nasty edge when Abie's mother first meets Rose.)

While Rose's father uses island magic and his influence as a respected leader to drive the couple apart, the show's book writer, Ron Sproat, does his best to drive the plot into the ground. This is the show's weakest element, though Doug Katsaros' uninspired direction gives Abie's Island Rose an additional push in the wrong direction. The same Katsaros, however, wrote the show's infectious music and boldly orchestrated it as well. A combination of Caribbean, pop, blues, and traditional show music, these melodies buoy the show and keep it from crashing on the rocks of its book. The lyrics of Richard Engquist & Frank Evans are more middling than the music, ranging from serviceable to occasionally witty.

The show gets an extra lift from a talented cast. Musical theater veteran and cabaret star Heather MacRae anchors the production as Abie's mother. She might have seemed an odd choice to play a Jewish mother, but apparently the Public Theater has nothing on the JRT when in comes to color-blind (or ethnic-blind) casting, and MacRae gives an accomplished performance. As Rose's father, Keith Lee Grant brings a fierce edge to his musical numbers, thundering his lines in a basso growl that makes the character the commanding figure he's supposed to be. Carla Woods characterizes Rose as such a tough-minded yet adorable young lady that Abie's infatuation with her is entirely credible. And Steven Rosen's performance as Abie suggests that he's a comedy star of the future; his vulnerable, yet gently comic rendition of one of the show's best numbers "Late Night TV" is a moment of exquisite musical theater.

Our trek through the musical desert continues. But, with any luck, Abie's Island Rose may turn out to be the first oasis in a more verdant 2000-2001 season.