I once had a long chat with a female (and therefore Reform) rabbi about the central beliefs of Judaism. I remember learning a lot about different types of candles, and when and how each should be lit, but when I asked her if Judaism believed in an afterlife of any kind, she said she would find out and get back to me.
Something of my surprise is shared by Eliot Green, the eponymous Bar Mitzvah Boy of Jule Styne, Don Black and Jack Rosenthal’s musical, adapted from Rosenthal’s television play of the same name. He watches his family descend into chaos as they fuss about caterers, who has RSVP’d and whether Eliot will have time to get his hair cut and recite his Torah portion well enough to impress the guests, but no one seems to mention God or religion at all. Besides, if it’s all about him becoming a man, what does that even mean? Are his petulant father, his dopily Panglossian grandfather and his sister’s spineless boyfriend the examples he’s supposed to follow?
In other words what we have here, mutatis mutandis, is My Big Fat Greek Wedding – if there were a tagline, it might be “Oy, my family you just vouldn’t believe…” That the writer was himself from this community is plain not only from the subject matter, but also because no outsider would dare risk this level of stereotyping – especially Eliot’s mother Rita, a whirlwind of fussing and kvetching who responds to social embarrassment by asking her family to kill her. Also, I can’t say I’m entirely comfortable with the line about how they dislike a certain relative because “he dates shiksas” (non-Jewish women) – would we laugh off white Anglo-Saxon Protestants snubbing one of their own for “dating Jews” quite so easily?
Those reservations aside, it’s undeniably an entertaining evening, and Robert Maskell is pitch perfect as Eliot’s henpecked father Victor, an amusing but believable character without descending into caricature. The show inevitably puts a lot on the shoulders of a young actor, but Adam Bregman is engaging as Eliot, and will only get better once he gets over the nerves that sometimes make him rush his dialogue.
Grace Smart’s set is painfully accurate in suggesting both the 1970s and thelower-middle class setting, the latter helped by the line “You’re an intelligent man – you read the Daily Express”. Stewart Nicholls’ direction has some nice touches, in particular the way drippy boyfriend Harold is called upon to move the furniture for the scene change while singing about how under-appreciated “the Harolds of this world” are, though for my money Nicholls doesn’t take enough account of the 50% of the audience who are seeing this show from one side or the other.
At times the show betrays its origins as a TV play – the crisis point which is the only possible place to put the interval occurs at least two thirds of the way through, making for a long first half. But Rosenthal’s book and Black’s lyrics are witty – a high point is the fun Black has with Jewish surnames as Rita goes through the list of who’s coming – and if the ending was a little sentimental for my taste, it at least manages to make the story universal for those of us who didn’t have a religious ritual to mark our passage to adulthood.