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A Letter to Harvey Milk Is a Musical With a Secret

This new show depicts the generational divide when it comes to sharing information.

Adam Heller plays Harry, Michael Bartoli plays Harvey Milk, Julia Knitel plays Barbara, and Cheryl Stern plays Frannie in A Letter to Harvey Milk, directed by Evan Pappas, at the Acorn at Theatre Row.
(© Russ Rowland)

Frannie Weinberg eyes Barbara Katsef with suspicion. She sees the younger woman moving in on her husband and wonders why she's asking him so many personal questions. Of course, she need not worry about an affair: Barbara is a lesbian and Frannie is dead. But she knows that information can be used as a weapon, and she worries that her surviving husband is handing Barbara a gun. Secrets and suppressed memories are at the heart of A Letter to Harvey Milk, the surprisingly fierce little musical now playing the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row.

While his ghost lurks in the background, slain San Francisco city supervisor and gay rights icon Harvey Milk (an uncanny Michael Bartoli) is only a supporting character in this story about retired kosher butcher Harry Weinberg (Adam Heller) and his writing teacher, Barbara (Julia Knitel). It's 1986 and Harry has decided to take Barbara's class after seeing a sign about it at the JCC. He insists that he doesn't have much to write about, but a moving letter he composes to Milk, a former customer and friend, proves otherwise. He writes about his disappointment in Harvey's decision to put himself in jeopardy by being so open about his sexuality, but also his awe at the display of unity that came in the wake of his assassination. These contradictory feelings are accented by the nagging voice of his deceased wife, Frannie (Cheryl Stern), whose ghost haunts him. They didn't talk about any unpleasant memories or feelings when they were married and they were perfectly happy, weren't they?

Harry (Adam Heller), Barbara (Julia Knitel), and Frannie (Cheryl Stern) take part in Barbara's writing class in A Letter to Harvey Milk.
(© Russ Rowland)

That question is at the center of "Weren't We?" one of 17 songs composer Laura I. Kramer wrote with lyricists Cheryl Stern and Ellen M. Schwartz (now deceased). Ned Paul Ginsburg's lush orchestrations for piano, cello, and woodwinds give the music a sentimental air ideal for a story about the dredging of feelings long thought drowned. At the same time, the lyrics are honest and playful. It's hard not to crack a smile when Frannie rhymes the Yiddish word "shanda" with "Rwanda." The book (by the composers and Jerry James) presents several intersecting stories without neglecting any of them. As we dig deeper, we learn about Barbara's strained relationship with her parents in Connecticut and the shrouded family history that has made her so interested in the stories of Jewish elders like Harry. We also learn why Harry is so reluctant to share them.

Director Evan Pappas juggles the overlapping plot lines with grace and precision. We're always aware of where we are and what time it is. Pappas's uninhibited staging is facilitated by a relatively open set design by David L. Arsenault that also conjures San Francisco and its painted Victorian homes. Christopher Akerlind's lighting helps us leap across time and space while giving the stage a dreamlike luster. Debbi Hobson's costumes delineate period while revealing things about the characters. Harry's droopy cardigan and mustard blazer tell the story of an older man carrying a whole heap of sadness in an ostensibly jolly package.

Adam Heller and Julia Knitel (front) appear in A Letter to Harvey Milk with Jeremy Greenbaum, C.J. Pawlikowski, and Michael Bartoli (back).
(© Russ Rowland)

Heller naturally embodies that distinctive mixture of emotional weight and levity. He cracks wise with the guys at his local deli (the jocular Bartoli, Jeremy Greenbaum, and C.J. Pawlikowski), but his droopy expression and thick Mitteleuropean accent convey a lifetime of betrayal. Not only was this Jewish immigrant let down by his birthplace, but his adopted country: Our constitution may have guaranteed Harvey Milk's right to speak out, but it wasn't able to protect him from Dan White's bullet.

In this light, Frannie's distrust becomes perfectly understandable, especially as unapologetically delivered by Stern. But so does Barbara's insistence on living openly, which Knitel performs with gentle exasperation. Barbara can't understand the enforced silence around her family's past, or her father's barely concealed embarrassment at being seen in Katz's Delicatessen. It's almost as though he harbors the same shame about having Jewish parents as he does about having a lesbian daughter.

A Letter to Harvey Milk tells the story of that destructive shame, but it also lets us know that you cannot really be brave without first being afraid. Brimming with warmth and clandestine power, this is one of those musicals that stows away in your heart without you even noticing.

Adam Heller leads the cast of A Letter to Harvey Milk.
(© Russ Rowland)