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Barrington Stage's 'Golem of Havana' is a rare original musical drama

Gordon Stanley and Jacqueline Antaramian in a scene from 'The Golem of Havana' at Barrington Stage
Gordon Stanley and Jacqueline Antaramian in a scene from 'The Golem of Havana' at Barrington StageKevin Sprague, Barrington Stage Compay

'The Golem of Havana' at the Barrington Stage Company

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It’s always nice to encounter a new, original musical—one that’s not based on a pre-existing book, film, play or amusement park ride—and especially heartening if it is as ambitious and dramatically daring as “The Golem of Havana” which is enjoying a world premiere presentation at the Barrington Stage Company’s (BSC) St. Germain Stage through Sunday, August 10.

Julie Benko in a scene from 'The Golem of Havana'
Julie Benko in a scene from 'The Golem of Havana'Kevin Sprague, Barrington Stage Company

“The Golem of Havana” is the 10th world premiere musical to emerge from BSC’s Musical Theatre Lab, which is coordinated by Artistic Producer William Finn, composer of such shows as “March of the Falsettos” and the BSC World Premiere “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

The work is the creation of two childhood friends from Venezuela, Michel Hausmann, the book writer who is also serving as director for this production, and Salomon Lerner, the composer, who were inspired to write the musical by some events in their extended families’ lives. Both now based in New York, they recruited writer Len Schiff to handle the lyrics.

The musical focuses on the Frankel family in pre-Castro Cuba, when Battista, who turns up as an actual character in the work, was facing the revolution. The family, like many other European Jewish families, emigrated to Cuba following the Second World War, where the father, Pinchas, now works as a tailor out of his home hoping to one day open an actual tailor shop in downtown Havana. This dream is seriously jeopardized when their maid’s badly injured son, the rebel Teo Rondon, seeks shelter in their home.

It’s easy to see why the creators were interested in musicalizing such a story. Here’s an opportunity to compose Cuban and Caribbean flavored musical numbers, while mixing in some Jewish and Eastern European influences as well. The idea works perfectly fine, with the music sliding easily and tunefully between the various genres as the score supports the progression of the plot.

The book also offers the opportunity to bring some attention to some forgotten history. Cuba had an active and thriving Jewish emigre community that took advantage of Battista's welcome to restart their lives. Contemporary audiences may not be aware of how the Cuban revolution which rose up in part due to Battista’s excesses and brutalities placed Castro in power. After Castro seized all the property in the country, this led to mass immigration of Cubans to Miami, which helped cement Southern Florida as a Cuban community.

The creators, drawing from Jewish history, also invoke the story of the Golem of Prague, a man-like creature formed out of clay by a rabbi who wanted to save his people from the government's repression but ended up creating a monster who proved very difficult to control. The creators’ conceit is that 14-year old Rebecca Frankel, an aspiring cartoonist with a vivid imagination, wonders what would happen if the Golem came to Havana in secret to protect her city as well. She even produces several comic books about the Golem's adventures in Cuba where he serves as a hero to the Jewish community and rights a number of past and present wrongs.

This is a heavy but not unwarranted subject for a musical, especially for one that can weave in such a variety of styles, including a number built around the some African religious practices brought to Cuba by slaves. Schiff’s lyrics are also impressive, as they neatly blend English and Spanish phrases in unforced rhymes, while simultaneously conveying the angst and fear of people who were caught between Castro's rebels and Battista's vicious regime. The music remains an ever-present undercurrent throughout the work, which allows the musical numbers to seem quite natural, even though a character may break into singing at an unexpected, unanticipated moment in the show.

The performers handle the rigors of relaying this diverse score quite well and are able to ramp up the drama and tension whenever necessary. Julie Benko, as young Rebecca, serves as the narrator of the musical as well as being one of major characters and she does a delightful job of depicting the young woman’s courage and conviction, as well as conveying her search for a savior, whether it be the Golem of her parents’ faith or the god Yemaya of the maid Maria. She maintains her energy level throughout and embraces her songs with an appropriate enthusiasm. At the same time, this can be a difficult role as Rebecca teeters between being a child and a quickly maturing grown up, and must go from appearing as a petulant youngster being reprimanded by her parents into being a canny survivor who can quickly think up solutions that keep herself and her parents out of trouble.

She is matched by the sturdy, eloquent voice of Ronald Alexander Peet, who plays Maria’s son, the fugitive Teo, who makes believable his need to participate in the revolution against Battista, who was responsible for sentencing his innocent father to death. For a good portion of the musical he must lay wounded, but that gives both him and Benko the chance to develop their characters’ relationship that bridges their cultural differences and is indeed one of “The Golem of Havana’s” more heartwarming elements.

Gordon Stanley is quite moving as Pinchas, as he tries to balance his growing role in Havana society as he invited to become Battista’s personal tailor with his moral responsibilities as a Jewish man, who understands the need to offer shelter to those mistreated by the government. His songs betray a tired tentativeness about his inner conflicts with being a good person versus trying to provide for his family. Jacqueline Antaramia is both cunning and cautious as Rebecca’s mother, Yutka, who adamantly expresses her opposition to housing Teo, which grows from her experience in the Jewish ghettos with her sister and her inability to trust. Gabriel Kadian does a fine job as the sister, Olga, especially in some emotional scenes between the two.

Rheaume Crenshaw demonstrates a studied diffidence as the house’s maid who is secretly worried about the welfare of her son, as well as a full-powered voice as she calls on her grandparents’ African Gods to come to her family’s assistance. Danny Bolero evidences a particularly agile way with Lerner’s music and Schiff’s lyrics as the family friend Arturo, an active supporter of the Battista government who enjoys his access to power and his ability to help his friends, but who is equally eager to report traitors in his midst. Felipe Gorostiza keeps Battista from becoming too much of a caricature of a Latin America dictator (which he was, so how can that be avoided?), and Ari Stachel is particularly frightening as Battista’s no-nonsense right hand man.

Director Hausmann and his lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger make excellent use of silhouettes throughout the show, which can be used for humor as in the melodious opening number which tells the backstory of the golem or more often for bleaker, more imposing purposes, as gunmen and strangers maneuver through the streets of the city and as Rebecca imagines her golem lying in wait. Arnulfo Maldonado’s accurate-feeling costumes cover the full economic spectrum of the characters, from the poor and middle class in the streets to the uniforms and elegant dress of Battista and his ilk, all underlined with a specific island flair. Edwin Erminy has created a set that definitely exudes the Spanish style architecture of Cuba, while incorporating a number of hanging draperies to accommodate various rooms and different locations. Marcos Santana has choreographed the movement with the effect of characters frequently moving through Havana on air or expressing their excitement when breaking into a sudden dance. Jason Yarcho allows the six-member orchestra to do full justice to Lerner’s orchestrations.

Dealing with such heavy themes as oppression, the Holocaust, the Cuban revolution, militarism and violence, it seems as if the plot is crying out to be an opera, n a musical drama. Opera would seem the more natural place for a show containing bloodshed, at least one rather significant death, a flashback to an equally harrowing situation during the Holocaust and ultimately a firing squad. But the creative team has chosen to develop their story using the conventions of the American musical and should be credited with pushing the genre's boundaries .

Despite Rebecca’s naivety and optimism in the midst of increasing danger and death, the pervading darkness can at times seem a bit overwhelming for an audience prepped to encounter such a story.At the same time, the shocking, violent death of a major character is rather quickly depicted and then uncomfortably ignored (for realistic plot purposes) until midway through the second act. In addition, exactly what the golem represents remains unclear, even though Rebecca credits the golem symbolically for intervening in the events in 1958 Cuba. It seems as if the creators wanted to incorporate the golem myth into their musical (the title song does make for a great opening number), but couldn't carry the concept all the way through, in part because drama of the family's story turns out to be so compelling. I wish they had made the connection clearer and perhaps used the symbol just a little bit more. As such, part of the story is about faith and how does one maintain faith in the wake of horrific events, especially when gods and golems fail to come through.

For tickets and information, call the Box Office at 413.236.8888 or visit the website at www.barringtonstageco.org.