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The Acorn Theatre, New York

When I saw A Letter to Harvey Milk, it was the night after Purim. What a fitting time to see this musical, just as the Jewish holiday most associated with feminism and the consequences of one’s identity – and, of course, with Hamentaschen, wine, and carnival – has passed.

A Letter to Harvey Milk does bring in its titular character a wonderfully buoyant, yet grounded, performance by Michael Bartoli. However, the heart of this show is its two leads: Harry Weinberg (Adam Heller) a retired Kosher butcher and widower, and Barbara Katsef (Julia Knitel), a lesbian creative writing teacher, who meet at the local Jewish Community Center. Through writing assignments, including the central letter to someone no longer with us, a father/daughter relationship begins to develop between the two unlikely friends. Yet the divides of time and the fear of consequences for speaking out challenge their point of views, their friendship, and their ability to hide from their pasts.

While Fiddler on the Roof might be the quintessential Jewish musical, A Letter to Harvey Milk feels like the essence of American Judaism. The corny jokes, the raspy Yiddish, the allusions to holidays and stories – and let’s not forget the Kugel – felt like home, as a Jewish American myself. But the musical is not just the clichés or the humor; instead, it shines a light on Judaism and homosexuality, on loss and on loneliness. As with much in Jewish culture, I was laughing through my tears.

A Letter to Harvey Milk will probably not be the next Broadway hit – the songs, while charming to listen to, are not particularly memorable. The jokes are sometimes strained, particularly with the Harry’s deceased quintessential Jewish wife, Frannie (Cheryl Stern), who is much better served as an old fashioned, strong-willed, and funny love of Harry’s life than as the Shiksa-hating stereotype. Harry and Frannie’s duets about her hands or their brand of love are touching, looking at a love with a time-worn foundation rather than modern tales of passion and the need to endlessly talk. When the show tries to use the character as a comedic point in a more serious song, however, the tonal shifts are too jarring and read as more awkward than funny. The music itself falls into this trap as well, combining the melancholy with the wisecracks. The show is better served when it separates the music’s intentions and instead transitions mood through dialogue.

A Letter to Harvey Milk The Acorn Theatre 02. Photos Russ Rowland

The individual performances by the chorus manage to create characters in Harvey, in Barbara’s raspy former lover (Aury Krebs), and in Harry’s friend from the old country (Jeremy Greenbaum) which lays the foundation for Heller and Knitel to capture our hearts. Knitel by far has the best vocal performance of the show – her voice clear, but sweet, not burdened down by Broadway belts meant to bring down the house or over-stylized rifts, but instead truly reflecting her character’s sincerity and passion. And quite simply just pleasant to listen to. Heller, though, embodies Harry Weinberg. His soft-spoken voice, charming but humble smile, and expressive eyes that can be read in the intimate Acorn theater pull the audience through whatever dips the show itself might have. He proves funny when needed, sweet with his wife, genuine in his acceptance, but raw in his pain and his fear. It is the chemistry between this unlikely pair as they subtly tackle issues that still haunt our world that makes the show worth seeing. With chutzpah and warmth, A Letter to Harvey Milk is a moving exploration of Judaism and the trauma that comes from publicly being who you are.

  • Musical
  • Book by Ellen M. Schwartz, Cheryl Stern, Laura I. Kramer, and Jerry James
  • Based on the short story “A Letter to Harvey Milk” by Lesléa Newman
  • Music by Laura I. Kramer
  • Cast includes: Adam Heller, Julia Knitel, Cheryl Stern, Michael Bartoli, Jeremy Greenbaum, Aury Krebs, and CJ Pawlikowski
  • The Acorn Theatre, New York
  • Until 13 May 2018

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