‘A Stoop On Orchard Street’ is oysgetsaychen*

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This reviewer is a former resident of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, born and raised less than one block from Orchard Street. So, after learning that the play’s author, Jay Kholos, was a Californian who never lived on the Lower East Side, I was prepared to view this play with a jaundiced eye, more for its authenticity on depicting life on Orchard Street than for purely entertainment purposes.

After all, what could an outsider possibly know about Orchard Street’s time, place, and people? Well, Kholos proved, with only a few minor exceptions, that he was right on the mark. The author did not use stereotyping, but portrayed the characters with the dignity, compassion, and love they deserved.

“A Stoop on Orchard Street” is a two-act, Off-Broadway musical that depicts tenement life on the Lower East Side circa 1910. Interestingly enough, it is currently being performed on the Lower East Side.

It tells the poignant story of immigrant life in the tenements of Manhattan by following the trials and tribulations of one family as they adjust to a new life in America after leaving Eastern Europe.

The elderly narrator, Benny (Lon Gary), weaves the story of his youth as a member of the Lomansky family — with father, Hiram (David Mendell); mother Ruth (Eleni Delopoulos); sister Seama (Deborah Grausman); “Bubbie” grandmother (Anne Tonelson); and uncle Simon (John Kirkwood) all squeezed into one tiny apartment. (*In those days, many large families also had boarders to help pay the rent).

Most of the action takes place on and around a stoop. (*Not too many people would hang around their stoop all day. The congested street was lined with too many pushcarts and peddlers.) They congregated in parks, candy stores, or on the street to escape the smothering effects of close living, and the stifling heat of the summer.

The father, Hiram, tormented by his inability to escape poverty and the fulfillment of the American Dream, deserts his family. (*To my knowledge, fatherless families were often the result of early deaths rather than desertions). Sam (Scott Steven), a neighbor, tries to fill the void, but is initially rebuffed by Ruth. A few years later, Hiram returns and...

No, I will not give away the ending. You must see the show for yourself. Suffice to say, the children grew up, scattered, and became doctors, movie moguls, entertainers (Eddie Cantor, George Burns, Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis, Anna Berger) songwriters (Irving Berlin), businessmen and women, and columnists. But there were also a few ne’er do wells, such as Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky.

The performances of the narrator and Shlomo the Peddler (Stuart Marshall) were quite notable. In addition, the musical score, and the production numbers, especially “The Dance of the Four Bubbies,” a takeoff on the senior citizen dance with walkers in “The Producers,” and the “Lipschitz” number, were delightful. I also smiled at the line, “Others may perspire, but Jews schvitz.” (* In every Jewish neighborhood, there was indeed a Schvitz, or Turkish bath, for the weary men to soak in.)

I later spoke with Kholos, the show’s producer and writer of the book and music who said that he was inspired to write the show by a visit he made to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street a few years ago.

“The first time I toured the Tenement Museum, the stories my grandfather had told me came alive in those tiny rooms and dark hallways,” remembered Kholos. “As a young boy,” he continued, “ I paid attention, but as an adult, I finally understood what he was trying to say. This led me to read a few books about the Lower East Side and the poignant stories they revealed.

“The Lower East Side was a melting pot where first generation Irish, Italian, and Eastern European families, in succession, lived together sharing the hardships, poverty, and humiliation of being strangers in a new land.” (* Orchard Street of 1910 was populated mostly by Eastern European Jews). “If your ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower,” Kholos suggested, “they probably landed on Ellis Island and settled for a time on the Lower East Side of New York.” Many personalities, such as radio and TV icon Joe Franklin and comedians Charlie Callas and Mickey Freeman have already seen the show.

Despite the minor discrepancies, I found “Stoop” to be *oysgetsaychen (outstanding) and “unterhaltunk” (good entertainment). If you liked “Fiddler On The Roof,” you’ll love “A Stoop On Orchard Street.” It continues where “Fiddler On the Roof” leaves off.

The show is being performed at the Mazer Theater, 197 East Broadway, Manhattan. For tickets call 866-468-7618. For group rates call 800-331-0472.

Posted 7:22 pm, October 10, 2011
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