Slick Shtick

Campy tribute to Allan Sherman delivers lots of laughs

May 7, 2003 at 4:00 am
Kazoos accompany the piano overture to Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh and set the tone for the rest of the evening: this is camp-skit fun, grown-ups playing with childish humor, jokes that make you groan and more puns per capita than should be legal. If you know who Allan Sherman is, skip to the next paragraph. For the rest of us: He was the Weird Al Yankovic of a long, long time ago in a galaxy far away ... well, of the Jewish suburban culture of the '50s and '60s. (Yankovic credits Sherman as one of his inspirations, having heard his songs on the Dr. Demento radio show.)

The New Jewish Theatre serves up a musical meringue based on Sherman's novelty songs, using his best-known ditty as the title. Writers Douglas Bernstein and Rob Krausz took Sherman's fictional character Barry Bockman and created his life story, from birth to retirement, inserting Sherman songs at every occasion. "We'll take you to barbecues and brises -- that's the kind of musical that this is," the actors cheerily sing as they introduce us to the play. The set, featuring a humorous slide of a baby with an adult head superimposed on it and a backdrop of blue sky with white fluffy clouds, tells us clearly that we're not in for a serious night of theater.

The first act is a delight, from the baby-bassinet costumes through awkward school days, ending in the wedding of Barry Bockman and Sarah Jackman (making her married name Sarah Filene Jackman-Bockman). Outstanding throughout all his incarnations, Alan Knoll steals the show as Uncle Phil, the unwanted wedding guest turned lounge singer. Channeling Bill Murray (in his funniest days), Knoll hits every joke precisely and sings (to the tune of "Hava Nagila") about Barry's parents: Harvey and Sheila. He coaches the audience in a three-part sing-along, brings an audience member out to dance with the cast and oversees the most amusing wedding reception I've ever seen.

John Vullo gets laughs and a number of rim-shots as a teacher giving a lecture, but he's most humorous as Harvey, Barry's father. He is the perfect blend of nervous and proud at the wedding, juggling concerns comically. Stellie Siteman transforms from awkward schoolgirl to a sequined mother of the bride (thumbs up to costumer Betsy Krausnick for all her creations), finding humor in each of her characters. As Sarah, Sharon Hunter is a compelling combination of naïve and energetic, and Tim Schall as Barry is sweet as the unhappy camper singing "Hello Muddah"; funny in "I Can't Dance," a comic duet with Siteman; and suitably confused as the groom during the whirling wedding reception.

The second act is not nearly as good as the first. Bernstein and Krausz move the Bockmans to the suburbs and give them midlife crises; the jokes and songs are less funny and the shift in tone from summer-camp skits to near-realism is jarring. Schall has a hauntingly beautiful voice, but when he sings, "Did I ever love? Did I ever give? Did I ever really live?" we wonder whether we came back to the wrong theater. Fortunately, Uncle Phil quickly steps in and tells Barry to cheer up, and when Sarah and Barry retire and move to Miami, the show ends back where it started -- with pun-filled humor. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," sung as an ode to a worker in Roth's fabric company ("Glory, glory Harry Lewis") contains my favorite line of the night -- "He was searching in the warehouse where the drapes of Roth are stored."

After a cheery curtain call, for which the actors all donned their Camp Granada T-shirts, the audience was led in a Sherman medley sing-along. Watching a near-capacity crowd singing "Mama's little baby loves matzoh, matzoh; Mama's little baby loves matzoh balls" was a fun way to end a lighthearted night at the theater. Kudos to director Edward Coffield for keeping the transitions quick, the rim shots well-deserved and the humor appropriately campy.