Review by Kathleen Campion
19 October 2015
The story hangs loosely on the creation myth of the Rothschild banking empire. It begins with Mayer Rothschild, born in the Frankfurt ghetto in 1744. He contrives to move from peddler of rare coins to a financial facilitator at court. He spends his life creating a vast banking fortune, dispatching his five sons to Europe’s power centers, leveraging their knowledge and his capital, to help defeat Napoleon and win favor with the power elite of the day.
If it sounds familiar, it should. This version, from the York Theatre Company, is a one-act reimagining of the 1970 Tony-nominated The Rothschilds. That production relied on Frederic Morton’s book of the same title.
It’s usually fun to go to see what Jim Morgan, the York’s artistic director is up to. The theater at St. Peter’s, in the Citicorp complex, is intimate; and the company, devoted to musical theater. They deliver trained voices and remarkable musicians on a stage not far from your seat. So hats off to the York for staying on mission.
Rothschild & Sons, however, is so much on a mission as to be tedious. To escape the literal Frankfurt ghetto and the larger one that keeps Jews from most professions, Mayer Rothschild recognizes the acquisition of enormous wealth is the only leverage that will matter. He will need sons to “extend his reach.” He trains his sons to be more than peddlers, to be bankers. Historically rich, this is, unfortunately, a tale told rather baldly and repetitively, and so tediously.
If the dramatic external struggle is changing the wretched status of Jews, the internal struggle is the father-son conflict between Mayer (Robert Cuccioli) and the son most like him, Christopher Williams’ Nathan. Their duet “He Never Listens” is among the successful numbers.
Glory Crampton’s Gutele, Mayer’s wife and the mother of the required five sons, has a few delicate solo moments but is largely upstaged by the boys-to-men songs. Everyone sings well enough and the musical is strongest when voices are combined. There is little nuance in music or lyric.
Walking to the subway later, I found myself humming, often a good sign following a musical. Regrettably, I was humming “If I Were a Rich Man”, which was not part of the score. It was, of course, Tevye’s signature song from Fiddler in 1964. Not for nothing. Music and lyrics then and music and lyrics now courtesy of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. I guess they’re entitled, but to my ear, it made the sounds of this production seem supremely derivative.
When a show isn’t working, it can only seem long. At 1 hour and 50 minutes with no intermission this one fit that bill. It is a measure of just how close the audience is to the stage — and a measure of the aged-bladder set that makes up a good share of the audience — that a near collision marked that precise moment when the lesser characters come forward to take the company’s first bows: Just as Christine LaDuca stepped to the footlights, she was nearly taken out by a gent barreling out of the front row in apparent urgent need of, well, the “gents.”
By chance, I was seated next to a handsome couple I know. After the curtain call, the woman and I walked to the elevator agreeing that if one was not a son or did not have sons, this evening was designed to make you feel extraneous.
There was continuing comment on that score in the elevator. You have to wonder what the pitch session for this production was like: “We think this puppy is sooo good we can write off 53 percent of the audience!”
Well, good luck with that.