Obviously in this season of Thanksgiving, one of the things that people are most thankful for is the embrace of their family: sometimes a little tighter than we’d like or perhaps edging on dysfunction for some, but for the most part, we’re who we are because of the family that’s surrounded us.
Songstress and actress Rena Strober has two families, both of which are alluded to in the title of her one-woman show, “Spaghetti and Matzo Balls,” which I caught last month and (mea culpa) was supposed to have written the review for by now. The show was a limited engagement at New York’s Triad Theater, and closed on November 11. (Sorry for not finishing this review before now, Rena; but the way NY theater works, it’s possible the show’s not gone forever.)
While I expected Strober’s story to be about how one of her parents is Jewish and the other is Italian and non-Jewish, this is actually about a Jewish girl who finds a second family, or more appropriately, a famiglia, in the Italian-American community through her regular performances at the famous New York restaurant Rao’s. (For another connection to family, Strober co-authored the show with her brother Dean.) Here’s a 3-minute promo for the show, so you can get a flavor.
Now, if you’re a New York news junkie, you’ll recognize Rao’s as a restaurant that, though lauded for its food and authentic Italian atmosphere as well as its celebrity clientele, is now closed, in part due to a violent shooting that happened there in December of 2003.
What follows is an excerpt from a New York Magazine cover story on the shooting:
Al Circelli asked Nicky the Vest for the check, threw down some cash. A moment later, Louie reached into his pocket for his .38. In the movie, the next bit would have happened in slow motion. Louie shoots from the hip, not even getting up from the stool, not aiming at Al’s back. It’s a quick gesture. Al doesn’t even see the gun. “He spun off the stool,” Louie said. That’s how he got him in the back. Albert Circelli, hit once in the heart, stumbled twenty feet toward the Madonna in the window, where he fell at the feet of a diner, Al Petraglia, chief clerk of the Nassau County Surrogate’s Court, who grew up with the other owner, Ron Straci. Louie followed Circelli, cruising on that bum knee. He shot again, and missedâ€””Nerves,” he explainedâ€”and instead hit Petraglia in the foot. He tossed the gun aside, pushed out the door. Cinematically, it was perfect. A pool of blood, and the singer who hid under a table.
It sounds surreal, like a scene scripted by Mario Puzo. But that singer was Rena Strober, and she’s lived to sing about it. A story that’s all gleeful celebration of her literal Jewish kinship and the professional/personal kinship that she finds at Rao’s has touches of insider jokes for both sets of relatives: she sings the Godfather theme song in Yiddish, a personal highlight for me as the theme is one of my all-time favorites. She also tells stories of the famous people she has met through her songstressing at Rao’s, including one famously charismatic ex-President. She tells of having visited a Jewish community in the south and hearing Hebrew, which, with a southern accent, finally seemed soulful to her.
The requisite jokes about nose jobs and Jewish women’s purported materialism don’t do Jewish women any favors, but there’s enough heart and song in the show to redeem the broader strokes and the cheaper laughs. Strober is a gifted singer and has great stage presence, and the story is uniquely her own. She commits to sharing it with the audience in an intimate environment, showing how far she’s come since that night of hiding under the table as chaos ensued around her. This is Strober’s show, on her terms, loud and center-stage.