From ‘A Stoop on Orchard St.’ to ‘Capitol Steps’


By Masha Leon

Published August 22, 2003, issue of August 22, 2003.
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Take the F train to East Broadway, walk past the old Forward building — now encased in pre-gentrification scaffolding — and across the street is the Mazer Theater, where the musical “A Stoop on Orchard Street” attempts to re-create New York’s Lower East Side immigrant life circa 1910.

Inspired by his grandfather’s stories, this ambitious production by television and radio producer Jay Kholos focuses on the “trials of the Lomansky family as they adjust to a new life in America after leaving Eastern Europe.” Central characters in this large-cast musical include Hiram (David Mendell), a brutish man who abandons his wife, Ruth (Eleni Delopoulos); his young son Benny (Joseph Spiotta); daughter Seama (Deborah Grausman); “Bubbie” (Anne Tonelson), who peppers her pronouncements with juicy tfuis, and Sam (Scott Steven), an ambitious tailor in love with Ruth.

Director Lon Gary, who doubles as narrator, alludes to his “grandfather’s” description of the pungent, noisy life on Orchard Street, yet the production is bereft of the era’s background “pulse” — grinding poverty, crowding, abominable working conditions, labor strife. Though the actors speak and sing in impeccable English, I winced at such gratuitous Yiddishisms as tush, pish meshuge, schvitz, pish and fakakte.

Of the musical’s several audience-pleasing showstoppers, my favorite: “The Bubbies,” a riotous lineup of five babushka-wearing grannies who, at graveside, sing, dance, burlesque and lament: “You never write, you never come, because I’m dead is no excuse.” Special kudos to Sarah Matteucci (Sarah) and Kristian Hunter Lozzaro (Simon), the poignant, separated-by-the-ocean lovers, who meld their exquisite voices in longing duets.

* * *

My cheeks still hurt from my recent excursion to “Capitol Steps: Between Iraq and a Hard Place” at the John Houseman Theatre, where a revolving cast of multitalented actor-singers make satirical chopped liver of political personas, social scenarios and current headlines. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are spared. Those skewered in word and song include Hans Blix, Condoleezza Rice and Martha Stewart. But it’s the Clintons who get the most “hits” with such zingers as former president Clinton’s appearance on “Meet the Press” transmuted into “Press the Meat.” The French fare no better: General Malaise and Colonel Ennui’s justification as to why the French army failed to defend Paris is: “It’s never been tried.” Still they boast that their troops can stand for hours with their hands up. Inspired by the Verizon “Can you hear me now?” commercial, an elusive now you-see-him-now-you-don’t Saddam Hussein tries to connect with President Bush by cell phone. And the audience roared at the revelation: “Joe Lieberman is Yiddish for Mondale.” Barbra Streisand’s classic “You Don’t Send Me Flowers” is adapted to a Yasser Arafat-Ariel Sharon duet in which the PLO leader’s claim that “You don’t let me shower” is countered by the Israeli prime minister’s retort: “You blew up my car!” You have until August 31 to experience this witty antidote to the “real” news and thank the Founding Fathers for the gift of free speech. Go!

* * *

Just hours before the “Blackout of 2003,” I was on the phone with Los Angeles-based Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, asking him to clarify whether Arnold Schwarzenegger was indeed a major supporter of the center and its Museum of Tolerance. (The actor, whose late father had been a member of the Nazi Party, invited Austria’s former head Kurt Waldheim to his 1986 wedding to Maria Shriver.)

Hier was adamant. “Yes! He has been involved with the center for more than 20 years…. He personally donated $750,000 and has been a major fundraiser, raising millions for us around the United States.”

In March 1990, Schwarzenegger — currently hoping to replace Governor Gray Davis in California’s recall election — was honored for “his involvement in improving relations between Jews and gentiles and his support for the Simon Wiesenthal Center” at a dinner preceding the “Third Jewish-Austro-Hungarian Heritage Silver Antiques Exhibition and Symposium” at New York’s Westbury Hotel.

The symposium, moderated by Zev Brenner, president of Talkline Communications Network, was attended by delegates from Slovenia, Austria, Croatia, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary who addressed anxieties about the then-current and future status of those communities. Among the participants were Kalman Sultanik of the World Jewish Congress and Szymon Szurmiej, then director of the State Jewish Theater of Warsaw.

Princess Michaela Von Habsburg (daughter of Otto von Habsburg) presented Schwarzenegger with a 19th-century silver Torah crown created by master silversmith Adalbert Mayer. Following an elegant Austrian dinner prepared by Jaroslav Mueller, head chef of Vienna’s Hotel Sacher, Schwarzenegger led the way to the dessert table, where he offered me a slice of sublime chocolate, apricot-filled Sacher torte.

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