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Shlemiel the First

This delightful musical adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer's classic story receives a first-rate revival. logo
Amy Warren and Michael Iannucci
in Shlemiel the First
(© Gerry Goodstein)
It's undoubtedly true that every once in a while most people feel utterly stupid. Fortunately, there is a town where the entire population is way stupider than any audience member. It's called Chelm, and it's the setting of the delightful 1994 musical Shlemiel the First, now being revived at NYU's Skirball Center for the Arts.

Indeed, as adapted by librettist Robert Brustein, lyricist Arnold Weinstein, and composer Hankus Netsky from Isaac Bashevis Singer's play about the fabled village, this chamber tuner is hard to beat for sheer silliness.

How stupid are the Chelm inhabitants? Well, the one with the highest stupidity quotient is Shlemiel (Michael Iannucci), who leaves wife Tryna Ritza (Amy Warren) and children Mottel (Darryl Winslow) and Gittel (Kristine Zbornik) to spread the supposed wisdom of Chelm's wisest local thinker, Gronam Ox (Jeff Brooks).

While on his journey, he inadvertently circles back to his home. Arriving there, he's convinced he's discovered a second Chelm exactly like the one he left. More than that, he believes he's found a Tryna Ritza, Mottel and Gittel exactly like his own family.

Growing fond of this identical spouse, he even agrees to sleep in her bedroom as long as there's a barrier -- a cloth placed over a bar -- between him and her. Eventually, Shlemiel is talked out of his weird stupor by the women, who in Chelm (as in life?) are smarter than the men.

The musical's folksy charm cannot be attributed solely to the Chelm populace's exquisite self-delusion. Adding immensely to the proceedings are both the delightful ditties (including "The Georgraphy Song" and "Twos") and the work of the superb klezmer band, here dubbed The Shlemiel Band, and conducted from the piano by Zalmen Mlotek.

In addition, Robert Israel's far-from-level set may put art-loving viewers in mind of Marc Chagall's whimsy, while costume designer Catherine Zuber outfits female cast members Warren and Zbornik in housedresses padded at all the amusing places.

Absolutely not to be overlooked is David Gordon, reprising his 1994 helming duties, who has gotten every cast member -- four of the eight doubling in quick time -- up to snuff. He also has all sorts of directorial surprises in store, not the least of which is his notion of how time stops for Shlemiel when on the road he pauses to relieve himself. It's an unforgettable moment in this musical commentary on universal human foibles.

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