City Sickos

In 1993, composer Marvin Laird and director/lyricist Joel Paley won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical with Ruthless!, their delightfully twisted look at show business. Shortly before her death two years later, Norma Paley accepted her son's Carbonell Award for his direction of the critically acclaimed production of Ruthless! staged at Miami Beach's Colony Theater. To honor her memory, Paley decided to write a musical based on his mother's experiences with her synagogue's amateur productions. The resulting world premiere, It's Bashert!, now at Broward Stage Door Theater in Coral Springs, proves that Paley is a good son but a bad dramatist -- he lovingly re-creates a "temple" revue while reining in the arch wit required to spoof the form. The show's title translates from Yiddish as "meant to be," but it's hard to figure out just what its creators mean it to be: a hip sendup or a calculated attempt to target the area's significant population of Jewish theatergoers? The confusion doesn't stop there: Despite the glossary of Yiddish terms included in the show's program, many in the opening-night audience quickly felt left out of the Jewish in-jokes. Now, a shiksa like me should know from Yiddish? Don't be a messuggana! Still, plotz at this mishegos I didn't.

Get the idea? For two hours.
The musical starts out promisingly enough with out-of-work director Christian Von Trapp (Stephen G. Anthony) singing the lively, tongue-tripping patter song "How to Be a Yiddisha Cup." Cramming to pass as a Jew so that he can get a job directing Temple Ahavat Tsuris's entry in the Golden Tchotchkeh Awards competition (the pinnacle of synagogue show business), he quickly wins a welcome from Sadie (Elaine Bleiweiss) and the rest of the temple's sisterhood, who sing "Eat a Little Something." In addition to working with untrained actors, Christian must contend with his feelings of guilt about his estranged wife and daughter, Sadie's regrets about her son's death, and the nosy interference of Mitzi Katz (played in drag by Paley under the pseudonym G.G. Spelvin) from the rival Temple Beth Meyerson. Once Christian's rehearsals get underway, It's Bashert! drops its comic voice-overs and over-the-top numbers, leaving the actors to switch gears and play the material straight. Gone, too, are musical numbers about the characters, as the focus shifts to the musical-within-a-musical. Soon it's kick lines and twirling shovels for "Plant a Tree for Israel," followed by a would-be Ziegfeld girl singing "Borschtbelt Bubby" from under a giant headdress as she holds a scale model of a Catskills resort. It's Bashert!'s cheap, slapdash sets add to the temple revue's realism; likewise, the production's six supporting actors are perfectly typecast as talentless temple stars with weak singing voices and hesitant deliveries. Anthony winningly struggles to make Paley's predictable story interesting, while Paley himself provides some much-needed camp in the guise of the competitive diva Mitzi, who squirms in horrified delight to overhear Christian reliving memories of Easter.

But it's questionable if any amount of talent could overcome Joel Paley and Phil Lebovits's tepid book and lyrics, or Marvin Laird's instantly forgettable music. The production needs sharper casting, slier direction, and more lines such as the motto of Christian's agent -- "If you've got talent, I get ten" -- to underscore the parody and draw a mass audience. When viewed with such a slant, the sophomoric book and score might be laughably bad instead of just dismally mediocre.

I applaud the motivations behind Paley's musical, even if I can't muster much enthusiasm for its execution. My advice is to pass on It's Bashert! and spend the time visiting, calling, or writing your mother. Be a mensch; she'd love to hear from you.

It's Bashert!
Book and lyrics by Joel Paley and Phil Lebovits; music by Marvin Laird; directed by Joel Paley; with Stephen G. Anthony, Hollie Berger, Elaine Bleiweiss, Howard Elfman, Walter Muntner, Joel Paley, Harvey Phillips, and Dee Wilson-Bunn. Ongoing. For more information call 954-344-7765 or see "Calendar Listings."

Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll.
Written by Eric Bogosian; directed by Elena Maria Garcia; with Jerry Seeger. Through June 22. For more information call 954-929-5400 or see "Calendar Listings.

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