Robert Klein Zips Through a Century of Jewish Show Tunes
From the sublime to the ridiculous, including many stops in between, “From Moses to Mostel: A History of the Jews (According to Musical Theatre),” given its world premiere at Town Hall on Saturday night and starring Robert Klein in a very Tevye-like role, succeeded in its simultaneous goals of recovering mostly forgotten or overlooked chestnuts of the show tune repertoire that have been based upon Jewish historical figures or explored Jewish themes, and providing a stellar revue of musical performances, both serious and comic, perhaps with a preference for the latter, or with that very Jewish penchant for a combination of the two in tragicomedy.
This dynamic played itself out over the course of the two-act evening in about 20 semi-staged musical numbers featuring a stellar cast of vocalists drawn from Broadway, a house band put together by musical visionary Frank London, along with special appearances by the band he cofounded, the Klezmatics, interspersed with comic sketches plus a few musical comedy routines by the Tony Award-nominated veteran of Broadway himself, Robert Klein.
A dazzling variety of show tunes stretching back to the 1930s and running into the 21st century was tied together via a conversation between Klein and God, the latter of whom has decided that humanity is a failed experiment to be replaced by the slug-like inhabitants of a planet in another solar system. Klein begs God for a reprieve and the chance to argue the case for humanity via the history of the Jews — shades of Tevye, and indeed “Fiddler on the Roof” is drawn upon in a kind of cosmic joke that I won’t spoil in case the much-talked-about possibility of a life beyond this one-off night of musical theater is realized — to which the offstage God (voiced by Melissa Annis) assents, but with a strict deadline that corresponds approximately with the length of the evening’s entertainment.
It’s a humorous conceit that finds Klein totally within his comfort zones as comedian and song-and-dance man. He even gets a turn as a mouth-harp wielding bluesman at one point; all that was missing was a nod to his classic routine, “I can’t stop my leg.”
But all this was really an excuse for the musical nuggets performed with great aplomb by vocalists Joanne Borts, Rachel Stern, Rob Evan and Steve Rosen, in styles ranging from jazz to cabaret to burlesque to swing to classic Broadway to rock opera and beyond. The musical ensemble was a versatile and deft combo drawn from worlds including Jewish music, jazz, pop, funk, and the Balkan scene, as well as special guest appearances by the phenomenal Bollywood singer Falu, who dazzled in her melismatic improvisation in a rendition of “Is Anybody Listening” from “The Ten Commandments,” which also featured the inventive Indian percussionist Deep Singh.
Director Eleanor Reissa’s handiwork was apparent in the skillful manner in which the show kept pace and in the smooth swinging of the revolving door of performers. Highlights included “Heaven on Their Minds,” from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” given a much funkier, Blood Sweat & Tears-like arrangement with a buzzing electric guitar riff courtesy of downtown axe wizard Yoshie Fruchter and a sympathetic delivery by Rob Evan in the role of Judas Iscariot. Joanne Borts breathed new life into Kurt Weill’s “Song of Ruth,” built upon the key phrase spoken by the biblical figure, “Wherever thou goest, I’ll go also,” from Weill’s 1937 collaboration with Franz Werfel, “The Eternal Road.”
Act II kicked off with a riotous version of “The Inquisition” from the Mel Brooks film, “The History of the World, Part 1,” a spiritual forerunner of “From Moses to Mostel” as an historical anthology musical, and Klein pronounced the Klezmatics’ version of Aaron Lebedeff’s “Hulye kaptsn (Party on, Pauper),” performed by the singular Yiddish vocalist Lorin Sklamberg, “even better than B.B. King’s rendition.” The Klezmatics, along with Borts, offered a chilling “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music,” and Steve Rosen also raised goosebumps with “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes,” from Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret.” Jewish history, as we know, wasn’t all fun and games – tears have outnumbered the laughter for great stretches of time.
The show ended appropriately enough with a nod toward the Messiah, after which the Klezmatics sent the audience off with “Mazl Tov,” a gem co-written by Yiddish musical theater pioneers Joseph Rumshinsky and Boris Thomashefsky, bringing the show, musically at least, full circle to the roots of the Great White Way.
Seth Rogovoy, the author of “The Essential Klezmer” (Algonquin Books, 2000), is a contributing editor to the Forward.