By: Paulanne Simmons
Despite its somewhat misleading title, A Letter to Harvey Milk is not about the gay activist who was shot and killed in San Francisco by Dan White. Although Milk does make an appearance in the musical, the real hero is Harry Weinberg, an aging Jewish man, who signs up for a writing course with a young lady named Barbara Katsel and ends up writing that letter.
The show, now at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre, started its journey to off-Broadway in 1995 when composer and book writer Laura Kramer decided to adapt Lesléa Newman’s short story. In 2012, the musical, with lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz and Jerry James collaborating on the book, was presented at the New York Musical Theatre Festival’s Next Link program. It won five awards, but soon Schwartz died from cancer and Kramer brought Cheryl Stern on board for additional lyrics. Now, seven years later, this lovely and inspiring musical will hopefully get the audience it deserves.
The production, directed by Evan Papas, features the affable Adam Heller as Harry, Julia Knitel as Barbara and Stern as Harry’s deceased wife, Frannie, who despite being a figment of Harry’s imagination, often manages to steal the show.
Barbara, a rootless Jew who lost contact with her parents after she came out as a lesbian, is eager to learn about Harry’s life as an immigrant in New York City. She is even more enthusiastic when she finds out that after moving to San Francisco, Harry actually met and befriended Milk, a fellow transplant from Brooklyn.
It takes time for Harry to warm to the idea of writing about himself, but after a while, he takes Barbara under his wing and even introduces her to the kosher deli (“Turning the Tables,” sung by Barbara, Harry and the Waiters, is one of the show’s highlights). But when Barbara becomes too open about her sexuality, he becomes wary. And when she suggests he publish his memoirs he gets downright hostile.
It turns out that just as Barbara does not speak to her parents, Harry has lost contact with his daughter since she married a non-Jew. The ever present, ever wise Frannie wants Harry to reconcile with his daughter (“Honor Thy Daughter”). But it’s not until Harry comes to terms with his own past and also remembers what Milk stood for (“No One’ll Do for You”) that he can face the future.
A Letter to Harvey Milk has an exceptionally engaging score that is sometimes poignant and often funny. The Jewish schmaltz can at times be a bit overdone, but somehow the characters manage to rise above the stereotypes.
Most of all, this modest musical has a mighty message of love and acceptance we especially need today.
A Letter to Harvey Milk runs through June 30 at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42 Street, www.lettertoharveymilk.com. Photos : Russ Rowland