by Clark Groome
When Abigail Pogrebin’s daughter Amanda wanted to have her Bat Mitzvah, Abigail, who was not an observant Jew, wanted to be supportive. To learn what being Jewish meant, Pogrebin, a writer who had worked for Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes,” set out to interview famous Jews. Her mission was to discover what being Jewish meant to her subjects and how that heritage had influenced their lives.
The result of her exploration was the widely acclaimed book “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk about Being Jewish.” Composers and lyricists, many as famous as Pogrebin’s subjects, have set some of the interviews to music. Those songs have been gathered together and make up the world premiere production, “Stars of David,” which the Philadelphia Theatre Company is presenting at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre through Nov. 18.
Conceived by Aaron Harnick, “Stars of David” has a simple Charles Busch book that tells how Abigail’s search to understand her roots complements her daughter’s and how the interviews she does help both of them reach a deeper understanding of what it means to be Jewish.
I’d love to tell you that the show is a smashing success, but it really isn’t. The good news is that it’s 75 minutes long, has a talented and impressive cast (Nancy Balbirer, Alex Brightman, Joanna Glushak, Brad Oscar, Donna Vivino), and a first class physical production designed by Beowulf Boritt (set), Alejo Vietti (costumes), Howell Binkley (lighting), Robert Kaplowitz (sound) and Jason H. Thompson (the stunning and clever projections).
The show’s core — the songs that tell the individuals’ stories — is inconsistent. The list of interviewees is impressive; Leonard Nimoy, Aaron Sorkin, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Edgar Bronfman, Kenneth Cole, Norman Lear, Fran Drescher, Tony Kushner, Joan Rivers, Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Gloria Steinem all have their stories set to music while a few others — Gene Wilder, Beverly Sills, Mike Nichols, Dustin Hoffman and Sarah Jessica Parker — are talked about.
The most revelatory songs of the cycle are “Smart People,” David Shire and Richard Maltby’s take on Aaron Sorkin; “The Book of Norman” by Sheldon Harnick about Norman Lear; “Just Be Who You Are” by Amanda Green about Fran Drescher; “Horrible Seders” by Chestnut Hill native Michael Friedman about Tony Kushner; and “Broken Pieces,” one of the last songs written by the late Marvin Hamlisch, here collaborating with Alan and Marilyn Bergman who are also the song’s subject.
Many of the other songs are either boring or trite. Even when well sung by the good cast and accompanied by music director Jeff Marder’s strong four-piece orchestra, much of the evening is rather dull. It does pick up with the better songs, but it was telling that the moments that got the most enthusiastic response from the audience the day I saw it were brief clips from Norman Lear’s “All in the Family,” Joan Rivers doing a stand-up routine, and a moment with Fran Drescher as “The Nanny.”
For tickets to the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s world premiere of “Stars of David,” playing through Nov. 18 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre at Broad and Lombard streets., call 215-985-0420 or visit www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org