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A Letter to Harvey Milk

Theatre Review by James Wilson - March 6, 2018

Adam Heller and Cast
Photo by Russ Rowland

Harvey Milk often began his political speeches with the declaration, "My name is Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you." The jokey pronouncement helped break through stereotypical attitudes and establish lines of communication among people from different backgrounds. Cultural divides, Milk offered, could be bridged by a shared laugh and direct conversation. The self-dubbed Mayor of Castro Street is not a central character in A Letter to Harvey Milk, but his spirit and legacy provide the social and political bond between an unlikely duo at the center of the mixed-bag of a musical now playing at Theatre Row's Acorn Theatre.

A Letter to Harvey Milk, is set in San Francisco in the spring of 1986. Jewish widower Harry Weinberg (Adam Heller) has been besieged by nightmares involving the assassination eight years before of Harvey Milk, whom he knew from the Castro neighborhood as well as through familial connections from their Long Island pasts. With his wife Frannie now deceased, Harry is deeply alone, but he finds solace in conversations (and musical duets) with his dead wife's ghost (played by Cheryl Stern). He has also recently enrolled in a writing class through the local Jewish Community Center, where he befriends the lesbian teacher, Barbara Katsef (Julia Knitel), who as a blocked writer is trying to get in touch with her dormant Jewishness.

One of Harry's assignments is to write a letter to someone he once knew but is no longer living, and he pens a missive to Milk. Barbara is moved by the literary epistle and confesses that Milk's forthrightness about his own sexual identity inspired her to come out even though it meant rejection from her Connecticut family. Harry, a father with an estranged daughter, is ambivalent about Barbara's sexual orientation, but he attempts to educate her on all things connected with Jewish culture, including offering her a lesson in Jewish and Yiddish humor with the help of a group of waiters at the neighborhood deli.

The friendship between the alter cocker and the lesbian (or "lesbianke," as Harry affectionately calls her with Yiddish inflection) continues to develop until Barbara proudly proclaims her sexual orientation in the deli and later wears a politically defiant pink-triangle tee shirt. Considering Harry's fondness for Harvey Milk and as a San Francisco transplant, his reaction to her public proclamation is surprising to say the least. In the final minutes of the show, however, we discover the basis for Harry's conflicted attitudes toward out and proud homosexuals and the cause of his pesky nightmares.

The musical is based on a short story by Lesléa Newman (author of the hugely successful and highly controversial children's book Heather Has Two Mommies), and the plot and characters are potentially quite moving. Unfortunately, the material is undercut by a bland and generic score by Laura I. Kramer (music), Ellen M. Schwartz (lyrics), and Cheryl Stern (additional lyrics). Songs tend to blend together as the characters sing about past relationships, personal regrets, and enjoying life while one still can.

The musical numbers also include an energetic but unfunny song about Jewish humor sung by the Yiddish-spouting waiters. And Frannie, Harry's dead wife and represented as a stereotypical Jewish mother, seems to musically materialize when things start to get too serious. Her shrill comic number, "What a Shanda," could be a riff on a song from Fiddler on the Roof, but the lyrics are not nearly as witty. For instance, the song strains to rhyme every possible word with "shanda," such as "squand-uh," "pond-uh," and "Rwanda," and contains a series of put-downs about Barbara's lesbian appearance, including, "Her hair's so mousy brown/ She couldn't go blonda?"

In general the performances are better than the material. Adam Heller offers a rich and compelling portrayal of a man clinging to life's morsels of joy as he tries to suppress his own feelings of loss and cultural trauma. The climax of the show is heart wrenching, and Heller's performance makes one wish the rest of the show could have risen to this level.

As Barbara, Julia Knitel offers a similarly layered performance. She has a lovely, distinctive voice, and she conveys her own sense of sadness borne from feelings of being an outsider. I am eager to see what she will do next. As Harvey Milk, who we learn had a penchant for jelly beans, Michael Bartoli winningly captures both the heroic and human qualities of the gay icon.

Some of the early scenes move along a bit sluggishly, but director Evan Pappas creates some effective stage images, such as one depicting the candlelight march following Milk's assassination. Additionally, David L. Arsenault's minimalist design nicely establishes the musical's locale with a row of pop-up San Francisco townhouses in the background.

Ultimately, A Letter to Harvey Milk may fall short of its musical ambitions, but the show does conclude with a sense of reconciliation, understanding, and, of course, hope. This, after all, was Milk's ideal for a better future for as he often used to say, "You have to give people hope."

A Letter to Harvey Milk
Through May 13
Theatre Row's Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42 Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge