|Ben Caplan in OLD STOCK: A REFUGEE LOVE STORY. Photo by Stoo Metz Photography.|
When Fiddler on the Roof, adapted from the stories of Sholem Aleichem, was first staged on Broadway in 1964, there were those who carped that it was unduly sanitized and superficial. They were distressed that a Russian officer was portrayed in the musical as sympathetic, rather than cruel, as Sholem Aleichem had described him. And they were even more upset that whereas in Aleichem’s stories, Tevya the Milkman ends up alone, his wife dead, and his daughters scattered, in the musical adaptation the entire family is still alive at the end of the show and most are on their way together to a new life in America.
Fortunately, those critics did not prevail and Fiddler, sanitized as it was, went on to become one of the great blockbuster musicals of all time: it won nine Tony Awards, was enormously profitable and highly acclaimed, was the first musical to run for more than 3,000 performances, and is still the sixteenth longest running show in Broadway history. The creators and producers of Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, written by Hannah Moscovitch and now premiering at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, would have been well-advised to bear the lessons of Fiddler in mind but unfortunately they did not. And so, instead of a joyously entertaining yiddishkeit musical, we are being treated instead to a depressing rendition of the Jewish immigrant experience with excessive emphasis on the horrors of Romanian pogroms (even if it is set to klezmer music) – a truth that even Ben Caplan himself, the star of the show, cannot deny: in an aside to the audience he exclaims –
You guys all right out there?
It’s getting dark.
It’s getting a little dark
The laughs are turning into “why the fuck did I come and see this depressing show”
Well said, Ben. I couldn’t agree more.
Fiddler set a very high bar for success for yiddishkeit musicals and Zero Mostel and Topol, both of whom starred in it at different times as Tevya, will long be remembered in the annals of theatrical history for their outstanding performances. Ben Caplan is also an immensely talented performer - charming, personable and energetic to a fault – and I think he would prove a worthy successor to Mostel and Topol were he to be given the chance of reprising the role of Tevya in Fiddler. Unfortunately, however, he is not currently being provided with that opportunity, starring instead in Old Stock – which is a far cry from Fiddler. In this depressingly tasteless musical, Mr. Caplan’s enormous talents are largely squandered. (Not that Mr. Caplan doesn’t have himself much to blame for that circumstance: in addition to starring in this production as The Wanderer, he also was responsible, together with Christian Barry, the play’s director, for writing most of the musical’s songs.)
Old Stock is the story of Chaya Yankovitch (Mary Fay Coady) and Chaim Moscovitch (Chris Weatherstone), two young Jewish Romanian emigrants to Canada in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Chaya is 24 years old and has come to Canada with her extended family of 17. Her husband, Yoachy, her one true love, died of typhus in Russia on the road they were traveling on their way from Romania to Canada and she lost the unborn child she was carrying on the same road. Although her brothers may remain in the New World, ultimately she intends to return to Romania because she can’t bear the thought of an ocean separating her both from Yoachy’s and her father’s graves.
Chaim is 19 years old and has arrived in Canada alone, his entire family having been killed in Romania in a brutal pogrom. He has no desire to ever return to Romania since, unlike Chaya, he got out of Romania “too late” - only after his family was destroyed - and Romania holds no attraction for him.
When Chaim first meets Chaya in 1908, it is love at first sight for him and he is eager for her to marry him. Chaya eventually agrees, accepting guidance from her father to do so, but for her it is much more a marriage of convenience. Over time, however, Chaim and Chaya do have four children – and eight grandchildren and sixteen great-grandchildren. And fourteen great-great-great grandchildren with, hopefully, many more yet to come.
My disappointment with Old Stock, however, is not only that it is unduly depressing and gratuitously gory in its descriptions of Romanian pogroms, but also that it is tasteless, puerile, and misogynistic while paying lip service to political correctness.
For example, in a sophomoric song rife with platitudes, we are told that we should -
ask for consent before you put your dick in –
Similarly, in another song that might have been composed by the Administration and Faculty of Antioch College, we are told again and again that –
Her pleasure is your obligation, if she gives the invitation
Has the right of course to say she’s not quite in the mood to play
Consent is still always de rigueur, you’ve gotta check with her.
But the truth, as attested to by the lyrics of the musical’s other numbers, is that sexual relations are perceived in the basest, most misogynistic, most puerile, and most anti-feminist manner. To wit, sexual relations are described as, among other things -
Banana in the fruit salad…
Batter-dipping the corn dog
Bringing an al dente noodle to the spaghetti house
Cattle-prodding the oyster ditch with the lap rocket
Cleaning the cobwebs with the womb broom…
Going crab fishing in the Dead Sea
Parking the Beef Bus in Tuna Town… [and]
Roughing up the suspect
And so, when we’re also gratuitously informed that there –
ain’t nothing wrong with homosexuality –
(even though the play has nothing to do with homosexuality) and when, at play’s end, in a final PC homage to the trans-gender community (which the play also has nothing to do with), Ben thanks us all for our attendance by addressing us as –
…Ladies and Gentlemen and those who identify outside the binary…
my only reaction is “Please, please, spare me the sanctimony.”