By: Paulanne Simmons
For some reason the The York Theatre Company and The National Jewish Theater Foundation have decided to stage the world premiere of Rothschild & Sons, a one-act rewrite of The Rothschilds, which opened on Broadway in 1970 and garnered nine Tony nominations.
On the one hand, the show has an impeccable pedigree; the lyrics are by Sheldon Harnick, the music is by Jerry Bock, and the book is by Sherman Yellen, the same collaborators who wrote Fiddler on the Roof, which is being revived for the fifth time on Broadway this season. On the other hand, the music is bland, the lyrics are banal and the plot is clearly improbable. The score is not helped by the addition of previously unheard songs or Harnick’s revisions.
The original Rothschilds featured a cast of about forty, while in this adaptation, Jeffrey B. Moss directs a cast of only eleven, led by Robert Cuccioli as paterfamilias Mayer Rothschild. Many actors play "and Others."
The premise of the musical is that Rothschild and his five sons were not only shrewd businessman but also committed Jews who used their fortune in an attempt to liberate Jews in 19th century Europe. These Jews were living under conditions as restrictive and unjust as those in the Jim Crow South.
Perhaps this is the reason the role of Mayer’s youngest son, Kalman, is played by African American actor Curtis Wiley. Otherwise, there is no explanation for casting a black man, no matter how talented he might be, in a show about European Jewish identity.
The Rothschild’s political and business activities leave little room for romance. In fact, the only female in the cast with a major role is Glory Crampton, who plays Mayer’s wife, Gutele. But, except for a few moments when Gutele expresses fears about the future of the family, her main function is to produce those sons, which she does five times ("Sons"), each time becoming a bit more bedraggled.
The revised book focusses mostly on the father/son relationship, especially Nathan’s (Christopher M. Williams) attempts to plot his own course in London ("He Never Listens"). As for the Rothschilds’ attempts to influence Prince Metternich (the moustache-twirling Mark Pinter), the less said the better.
There’s little humor and almost no dance in this show. The set is fairly minimal and doesn’t change. In other words, Rothschild & Sons doesn’t have many of the elements we expect in a musical. After seeing an out-of-town previews of Oklahoma!, producer Mike Todd is credited with saying, "No legs; No jokes; No chance!" One wonders what Todd would say about this musical.
Rothschild & Sons runs through Nov. 8, 2015 at The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s (Citicorp Building, entrance on East 54 Street, just east of Lexington Ave>
Photo: Carol Rosegg