By Dale King
Avi Hoffman, the familiar singer, actor, comedian, storyteller, master of shtick and supporter of Jewish causes, is back on stage in Palm Beach County. He has dusted off his 24-year-old production of Too Jewish? And after tweaking, revising and refurbishing it, he’s performing it again, this time at the PGA Arts Center in Palm Beach Gardens.
“‘Too Jewish?’ has had incredible success nationally and in South Florida, so we have decided to bring the production that changed my life back to the PGA Arts Center,” said Hoffman, who counts multiple awards to his credit – among them a significant Carbonell in 2012 for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical. The honor recognized his work as Wilbur Turnblad in the musical Hairspray at Actors’ Playhouse in Miami.
During the show, Hoffman tells how he was taught at an early age to appreciate the beauty and depth of Jewish literature, music and traditions. He proudly says he is fluent in Yiddish, and displays it during his performance.
Too Jewish? still combines music, comedy, impersonations and personal reminiscences that take the audience on a journey through his Jewish roots, illustrating the traditions and history of his beloved Judaic ethos.
Hoffman is still the consummate comic who often interacts with audience members, especially the ones with New York roots. Those who hail from the Bronx are particularly anointed, as Hoffman was born there, too. This time around, though, Hoffman seems wiser and more mature; less the anything-for-a-laugh performer of younger days and more a “mensch.” He even tells about his recent meeting with Pope Francis.
Hoffman has become more like Tevye, the lead character in Fiddler on the Roof, a man who adores family and faith – in much the same way Avi talks of his own loved ones. He slips comfortably into the Tevye role to sing several songs from Fiddler during his show.
Actually, Hoffman knows the role quite well since he has portrayed the family patriarch from the little town of Anatevka on many occasions, including a stellar portrayal last year at Kultur Festival 2017 at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
Hoffman does retain some of the silliness associated with his earlier version of Too Jewish? He still opens the show by singing Allan Sherman’s musical parody, “Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max.” As he vocalizes, he points to people in the audience as if they were friends arriving at the theatrical venue.
“This is the perfect family outing for the holiday season as the mixture of musical styles in the show appeals to all age groups,” he explained. “It is the original production, with some new perspectives on how my life has dramatically changed” since Too Jewish? first hit the stage in 1994.
“A lot of things have happened,” he commented.
Too Jewish? makes its polished reappearance at PGA with appropriate slides projected on a screen at the rear of the stage. A hat rack stands in the starkly sparse set with a couple of chairs and a bottle of water on a stool near the front.
The show, like its two successors, Too Jewish Too and Still Jewish After All These Years, offers tongue-in-cheek performances and stories of Hoffman’s life and his associations with various folks and family. It includes Yiddish songs, nostalgic reminiscences and tributes to Yiddish vaudevillians.
In this version, the fact that Hoffman is a child of Holocaust survivors seems to receive greater emphasis. And the message that Jews by the millions, as well as equal numbers of men, women and children from all races and faiths were killed during the Holocaust, resounds. Seeing Hoffman speak from his heart while standing in front of his father’s photo projected on the screen behind him is powerful.
A series of illustrations recovered from a concentration camp, drawn by a prisoner as he viewed Nazi atrocities, also grasps the audience’s attention.
Throughout the show, Hoffman’s discourse meanders to his parents. His dad, he says, passed away in 2001 just as Avi was preparing to take the stage as Tevye. But his mother, Miriam, is not only alive and well, but is preparing for an upcoming presentation along with her son at this very same theater.
An author, scholar, journalist, playwright, professor of Yiddish at Columbia University and survivor of Nazi horrors, Miriam Hoffman will read selections from her new book A Breed Apart: Reflections of a Young Refugee, on Monday, Jan. 15, at 7 p.m. The evening will also include a multimedia presentation, discussion, a Q&A and book signing. It is free and open to the public.
Her personal tale captures the importance of having kept the Yiddish language and Jewish culture alive in the 20th and 21st centuries, despite countless attempts to destroy it.
Too Jewish? is playing through Jan. 21 at the PGA Arts Center, 4076 PGA Boulevard, Palm Beach Gardens. Tickets are $45-65. Call 855-448-7469 or visit www.pgaartscenter.com. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.