In Goldstein, Rebellion in the Form of a Tell-All Memoir
A new musical attempts to explore the complexities of family history.
At the top of Goldstein, a "new musical about family" at the Actors Temple Theatre, Louis (Zal Owen), a young, gay, Jewish novelist is discussing his latest work with an assembled audience. The book, also titled Goldstein, recently won the Pulitzer. It was named an "Oprah's Pick." But the information within threatens to tear his family apart.
This plot — secrets revealed through controversial means — is well-trodden in the theatrical canon. Goldstein, with a score by Michael Roberts and book by Charlie Schulman, follows two relatively recent (and much more provoking) works about similar subject matter: Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities (2011) and Steven Levenson's If I Forget (2017). Goldstein, however, isn't as bold as these works, and its lack of ambition ultimately leads to its downfall.
Through fragmented scenes all couched around Louis's lecture, he introduces us to his extended family. We learn how immigrant grandparents Zelda (Amie Bermowitz) and Louie (Jim Stanek) met and got together, though it was not necessarily through a love connection. We discover how Louis's aunt Sherri (Megan McGinnis) gave up going to medical school on a free ride simply because of familial pressure. We also meet Louis's parents, Nathan (Aaron Galligan-Stierle) and Eleanor (Sarah Beth Pfeifer), who are firm and unbending when it comes to their son's romantic choices.
Despite the numerous accolades, Louis encounters a big problem following the publication of Goldstein, and it isn't a surprising one. Aunt Sherri, seemingly afflicted with dementia, claims the story isn't true. But Louis, burned by his family's 1950s value system, stands by his publication, feeling that it is his responsibility to bring the "truth" to light.
From the outset, it seems like Goldstein is leading us into James Frey territory, but the memoir at the center of this musical is no A Million Little Pieces (despite the Oprah endorsement). Book writer Schulman shirks any sort of dramatic contrivance that would add moral and ethical fireworks into the piece; instead, he creates an easy-to-swallow story about a multigenerational immigrant family whose history is relatively undistinguished.
With one or two exceptions (particularly the very funny "Visiting Your Mother"), Roberts contributes a similarly flavorless score that emulates the cheerful but unadventurous sounds of 1990s off-Broadway musicals like I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. What this show lacks are the old-world, Eastern European sounds present in the likes of Fiddler on the Roof and Rags.
The actors do what is required of them — Bermowitz is particularly good as Zelda, imbuing this Yiddishe mama with old-country bite and strength — though director Brad Rouse stages the piece in a way that doesn't always take the venue's sightlines into consideration (during a recent performance, several audience members in the mezzanine even shouted, "We can't see you," when one cast member sat at the lip of the stage). Even still, Alexander Woodward's set blurs the lines between stage and auditorium, which doubles as an actual synagogue for Congregation Ezrath Israel, with surprising finesse. The same goes for Andrew F. Griffin's lighting, which transforms the stage into shards of memory when Louis flashes back to the past.
Despite its flaws, Goldstein knows its audience — a group mostly made up of older people who recognize the character tropes on display from their own lives — particularly well. It's not the most skilled musical, but it's an unobjectionable one. Grandparents can bring their grandkids to see it as a way to explain what their own childhoods were like, and not worry about content. It's bound to have a life outside the Actors Temple Theatre, so you shouldn't surprised to see Goldstein being performed at a synagogue near you in the future.