An Epic Battle

Don’t Worry, Be Jewish, a musical now playing at the Promise Theater, features nothing less than a battle royale between good and evil for the souls of its young protagonists. Good ultimately triumphs – no surprise there – but the bigger revelation is the amount of talent on display on this show, presented by the Children’s Talent Development Fund. CTDF is a non-profit founded five years ago by Marina Lerner as an outlet and training ground for talented youngsters – specifically, youngsters who were first generation American offspring of former Soviet residents. CTDF provides rehearsal space and brings in professional coaches, directors, designers and choreographers to help these children hone their abilities.

Eventually, Lerner partnered with fellow parent and creative type Mark Kleyner to create “Our Talented Program,” one of the few current Russian children’s television programs. Kleyner has written, along with musicians and lyricists Alexander Butov and Brian Starr and translator Julia Burke, Jewish. The show follows the lives of Chaim (Nathan Kay) and Sherianna (Kristina Biddle), brought together as their siblings wed at a seemingly high-profile wedding (with reporters and stylists on hand).

Jewish takes on fable form as, in a magically realistic way, King Solomon (Tyler Hall and Mitchell Sapoff in alternating performances) and the Devil himself (Tyler Hall and Kaitlin Novak share the role) arrive to tempt the young children down different paths. As a result, the two must discover exactly what it means to be Jewish, and whether or not each wishes to reclaim the faith under which they have been raised.

Kleyner’s script could stand to be more fleshed out; it is not always clear, particularly in the beginning, who is who and whether the appearance of King Solomon and the Devil occur in real time or if they are figments of Chaim and Sherianna’s minds. But more importantly, Jewish is an outstanding vehicle for its cast, who are as richly talented as they are light on years. Kay ably carries the show in his leading role, and Biddle’s gorgeous voice calls out to Broadway.

The entire supporting cast is on par with the two leads. Novak, who portrayed the Devil in the performance I saw, is a natural singer-dancer, and relishes his time in the spotlight. Natalya Chamruk, Elina Rakhlin and Simona Meynekhdrun fully inhabit their small roles of photographers and stylists (particularly Rakhlin, as the dim bulb of the set). Sapoff wisely uses grandiose gestures for his role as the wise king, and Elan David Kvitko, one of the older actors in the show, was also a poised presence as a photographer – I wish he had been utilized more in the show.

Butov’s and Starr’s songs are also credible, including the title song, “Sunshine and Rain,” and “What Would Life Be Without Magic.” All of these songs find a catchy way to appeal to its young audience while still entwining aspects of the Jewish culture. Accordingly, orchestrator Alexander Ratmansky is also to be commended, as is choreographer Jessica Redish and lighting designers Michael and Stanislav Nemoy.

Jewish certainly aims high, requesting its young cast to enact very heavy themes – it does not get much weightier than questioning one’s faith. But Kleyner, who directs this solid show in addition to creating it, does an incredible job with his entire ensemble, instilling exactly what one might expect from the playhouse in which Jewish is performed: the Promise Theater.

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