Whether it’s a musical, a drama or a comedy or any combination thereof, there are a few ways to look at a show, especially when you’re the self-appointed Manhattan Theater Critic for Jewlicious. So allow me to introduce the Jewlicious Theater Review Grading System, which judges works of theater according to several levels: Jewish content and message, integrity of the show (how effective the show was within its genre of being a comedy, drama, musical etc) and other technical notes.
The JAP Chronicles: the Musical, a new off-Broadway, one-woman musical comedy written and performed by Isabel Rose (Perry Street Theater, NYC opening May 3, running through May 28, click here for $30 tickets)
Jewish content and message: The JAP Chronicles is highly culturally Jewish by virtue of its use of random Yiddish phrases, and echoes the cultural/socioeconomic camp experiences of those who went to summer camp with kids from the upper-middle class suburbs. But the cultural connection is a little superficial and centered on luxury and excess… reflecting the shallowness of the show’s JAPpier characters; after audiences are asked not to “futz around” during the show and are further invited to “kick off your Manolos and enjoy.” One character notes that “there’s no point in raising children in Manhattan unless they go to the 92nd Street Y–their lives will be destroyed.” Character names are a combination between the contemporarily affluent and, stereotypically Jewish, from Dafna Shapiro to Arden Finkelstein, and the characters themselves are also Jewish in name and accent only.
While the show is, even in its title, meant to explore the identity of those JAPpy Jewish girls we all knew growing up, Jewish identity is hardly celebrated. The central character Allie Cohen is a filmmaker (and this reviewer wonders if her character is related to Rent’s Mark Cohen) who goes to a camp reunion and seeks revenge against the girls who terrorized her while she was a camper by exposing the said campers through a video about how JAPpy they are. While the main character emerges from the show having accepted herself and who she is a little more than she had at the beginning of the show, Jewish identity is incidental to the relationship that these women have with money and luxury.
Integrity of the show: One-woman shows are hard–often featuring a central narrator with supporting characters who links the monologues of individal characters. Other times, it’s a series of characters, presented consecutively, each character building on the plotline and expanding the characters that were previously presented (Sherry Glaser’s Family Secrets is one of these that I saw recently, and it was EXCELLENT–tickets now available for performances for that show through June 18th.)
Somewhat more ambitiously, in JAP Chronicles–The Musical, Isabel Rose, who wrote last year’s popular book of the same name, takes this already-difficult task and makes it more complicated, by having some characters talking to each other, and constructing scenes in which character expositions and scene transitions are set to music. While this complex performance is clearly a great deal of effort, it’s extremely exhausting to watch, and the character changes are mostly achieved through accent shifts (including one that’s so nasal it gives Friends’ Janice a run for her money) and what I like to call “the transformative power of eyewear”–changing from glasses, to sunglasses, to no glasses, and then to a different pair of sunglasses. This isn’t inherently good or bad, but a few of the characters are very difficult to tell apart, which lends a little confusion to what in all other accounts is probably an excellent portrayal of different characters by the same person.
Technical notes: The staging was minimal, but worked, providing multiple scene setups but without distracting the audience from the character work. The music was very good, but the lyrics were erratic in terms of effectiveness. Forced rhymes bug me, and some of the words used to complete the rhymes seemed stilted or awkward, to the point of being outside the range of slang. Some of the language also seemed not to be distinct to each character, despite a change in musical style or energy from character to character. Good musicals possess not just good music, but the lyrics should be well-constructed and believable from a perspective of both rhyme and being true to character–the lyrics fall short on both levels.
Overall, the show marks a tremendous effort by Rose to present many characters within the challenging limits of a one-woman show. If the lyrics are given an overhaul and the characters become more clearly defined and differentiated (or alternately, one or two of them are cut out), the resultant product will likely better showcase Rose’s considerable talent, as a writer and a performer.