There's something wrong in the little village of Chelm: Shlemiel and Tryna Ritza's marriage has become a habit instead of a relationship. A sour-cream shortage has led the town's "Sage of Sages" to declare that water is now sour cream and vice versa, so all the blintzes are soggy. And three of the wisest men in Chelm are clearly sock puppets, complete with payot and black hat.
There's your tipoff that these people are fools. But such fools, oy vey. For New Jewish Theatre's staging of the musical Shlemiel the First — adapted by Robert Brustein from a series of Isaac Bashevis Singer short stories — director Edward Coffield has assembled a murderer's row of actors, and he gets his money's worth. There's nary a dull moment, and musical director Henry Palkes and his small band light up the bouncy klezmer score with palpable glee.
Marginally employed as a beadle, Shlemiel (Terry Meddows) sleeps all day to avoid his wife, whom, he claims, is mean to him. But Tryna Ritza (Emily Baker) has good reason to be pissed off: She lugs a cartload of radishes to the market each day in hopes of making enough money to keep the family fed. Theirs is an arranged marriage, and divorce is unthinkable. How's poor Shlemiel supposed to escape this unhappy life?
Fortunately, the wisdom of Gronam Ox (Todd Schaefer) provides an exit. Certain he's the wisest man in Chelm — his council of wise guys constantly reinforces this delusion — Gronam needs a messenger to spread news of his brilliance to the rest of the world. And his dim little beadle, Shlemiel, is just the schmuck for the job. Soon enough he's off to see the world and spread the good news about Chelm. He's back before the end of the day — under the misconception that this is a different Chelm, populated by doubles of everyone he knows from back home. Gronam Ox confirms this belief, because he's a shmuck. (Gronam's a great dancer, though, as you'll witness throughout the show.)
Now would be a good time to mention the secret of Chelm: Foolishness plagues only the men. The women of Chelm are all possessed of incisive common sense that the men ignore because nothing the women say aggrandizes the men.
[This space intentionally left blank for female editorializing on how nothing ever changes.]
Tryna Ritza is among the sharpest of the town's wits and tries to convince Shlemiel he's home, but nobody tops Gronam's wife Yenta Pesha (Johanna Elkana-Hale) for smarts. A stout woman who keeps her trusty rolling pin slung high on her hip, Yenta Pesha is a fearsome intellect. When Gronam insults her watery blintzes, she launches into a tragicomic aria about blintzes, marriage and her husband's stupidity. Delivered with soap-opera intensity, it is the first of many showstopping tunes in Shlemiel the First. Sadly, there is no song list extant for the show, but you'll know it when you hear it. You'll immediately crave a blintz.
Meddows takes all this foolishness very seriously, avoiding any mugging or hamminess. His Shlemiel is a goodhearted simpleton who delights in the show's many delightful songs. At one point he sits on the stage and watches a number with beatific joy, radiating innocence and goodwill to the assembled dancers. At this moment, it's clear why Tryna Ritza loves him despite his many flaws: He's a good man, built for laughter rather than sorrow.
But in laughter lies truth, too, as Shlemiel reveals. Pride and wisdom aren't the same thing, for one. Sometimes a change in attitude is all you need to change your life. And nothing beats a really good blintz shared with your one true love.