The Golem of Havana

This underdeveloped new musical looks at the political strife in 1950s Cuba.

Liba Vaynberg in <i>The Golem of Havana</i>
Liba Vaynberg in The Golem of Havana
(© Carol Rosegg)

The Golem of Havana is a deceptively titled musical recently produced at La Mama’s Ellen Stewart Theater, where it is receiving a very simple staging that nonetheless gives life to this uneven new work. The musical does show promise, however, with assets that include a couple catchy tunes and some compelling central characters.

The main story line follows Rebecca (the multitalented Liba Vaynberg), a young Jewish girl in 1958 Havana. Rebecca avoids thinking about her family’s financial troubles (parents played by Yelena Shmulenson and Patrick Kerr) and the increasing strife in her country by creating a comic book called, of course, The Golem of Havana, based on the idea that a disassembled golem from ancient Prague had washed up in a box and reassembled on the shore of Cuba hundreds of years later. Apart from some superfluous plot points, the entire purpose of this comic book is a metaphor that doesn’t really come together until the very end of the show.

The musical itself, like that central metaphor, is thought-provoking and uncommon but tragically under-worked. Though the story deals with a time and place in history that is relatively unknown (at least to U.S. residents) and rife with musical-ready drama, the plot created by Michel Hausmann (also the director) could, with just a little tweaking, take place almost anywhere. Additionally, Rebecca’s dreams/flashbacks to her mother’s childhood in Nazi Germany provide interesting parallels but do little to further the plot and often seem to come out of nowhere. The music, created by Salomon Lerner and Len Schiff, is rarely memorable but is among the show’s brightest points and provides necessary upbeats in a relatively one-note story.

Most of the performances are solid if not outstanding, both in terms of singing and acting. Vaynberg, however, does do a notably good job carrying the sweet but predictable and tired story — a success that is particularly impressive because she is playing a child character. Shmulenson also does well at embodying whatever character the script demands, transforming into the young version of herself as a girl trapped in Nazi Germany that Rebecca sees in her dreams.

Set and lighting design is scant but serviceable — creating the necessary set space and even some low-tech but impressive special effects — and the show is enhanced throughout by a small live orchestra. Director Michel Hausmann does an excellent job of moving along a show that has little in the way of plot or multidimensional characters to keep its audience’s attention. He also manages to create more-or-less smooth transitions between the world of the play, the world of song, and Rebecca’s vivid dream world.

What The Golem of Havana needs most is, well, a golem — or at least some attention-grabbing, plot-driving force. The entirety of the play, from the lighting/set design to Rebecca’s ever-present comic book, teases at a bigger, more fantastical story. When, despite some flashes of real poignancy, that moment never comes, the show feels too inconsequential. It is an important, moving story that simply requires more heft.