In 1960, a promising young composer-lyricist was sent to Israel to soak up its atmosphere and culture in order to write a musical set in that plucky new nation. The songwriter was Jerry Herman and the show would be his Broadway debut — Milk and Honey.
It ran for a respectable 543 performances and, of course, has since been overshadowed by such Herman megahits as Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage aux Folles. Although it is rarely revived these days, Boca Raton’s Wick Theatre had selected it to open its ninth season, amid more familiar, mainstream fare. It is an uncharacteristically risky choice for the company, but one that pays artistic benefits while also revealing the musical’s flaws.
The show is a love letter to Israel, but Herman (and his book writer Don Appell) knew to populate the storyline with romances as well. Chief among them is the unexpected affection that blossoms between Baltimore builder Phil Arkin –– in Israel to visit his expat daughter Barbara — and Ruth Stein, on tour with a group of man-hungry widows. Complicating their relationship is the fact that Phil is still married, though long separated from a wife with no interest in divorce.
Following the Rodgers and Hammerstein formula, Phil and Ruth’s on-off romance is counterbalanced by other love stories, including that of Clara Weiss, the leader of the widows’ tour, who attracts an American diamond merchant late in the show. Then there’s kibbutz farmer Adi and his assertive, pregnant wife Zipporah, as well as Barbara and her Zionist hubby David. It makes for a crowded field that might have been more effective with a few fewer characters, or perhaps a more adroit narrative than Appell supplies.
Still, the draw here is Herman’s score, which hardly sounds like the work of a neophyte. His way with simple, catchy melodies is already evident, as well as a facility for well-crafted, unforced lyrics. Listen to Phil’s heartfelt solos (“There’s No Reason in the World” and “Let’s Not Waste a Moment”) and you may hear foreshadowings of Herman’s later work. Certainly that is the case with the title tune, one of the composer’s signature anthems. And he already demonstrates a mastery of comic specialty numbers in Clara’s two songs, “Chin Up, Ladies” and “Hymn to Hymie.” The latter, an address to her late husband asking his permission to remarry, is bound to bring to mind a similar sequence in Hello, Dolly!
Avi Hoffman seems an inevitable choice to play Phil and he does not disappoint. The writer and performer of several Too Jewish? solo shows is adept at connecting with audiences and we are quickly rooting for Phil to find happiness in midlife. The role was originally written for booming Metropolitan Opera star Robert Weede, but Hoffman wisely opts for a more conversational musical theater delivery. Not so for the estimable Laura Turnbull (Ruth). While her quasi-operatic soprano voice is lovely, it is often incompatible with Hoffman’s on their duets. And veteran costumer Ellis Tillman does her no favors with her frumpy wardrobe.
Irene Adjan seems inherently miscast as over-the-hill-but-still-kicking Clara –– a role originated by the legendary Molly Picon –– but Adjan does not seem to notice, so we might as well not either. With a Borscht Belt way with a punch line, as well as a song lyric zinger, she becomes the show’s secret weapon, always ready to supply the show’s comic relief. Among the widows she shepherds are Carbonell Award winners Elizabeth Dimon and Patti Gardner, both woefully underemployed here.
On the other hand, Elliot Mahon (David) is a standout with a couple of musical numbers and the ensemble gamely executes choreographer Oren Korenblum’s folk dances, even if they seem more Las Vegas than Jerusalem.
Director Peter Loewy appears to be shackled with Milk and Honey’s early ‘60s presentation style, where some streamlining might have yielded a more satisfying evening’s entertainment. But if you are going to discover –– or rediscover –– a transporting early Jerry Herman score, you will be richly rewarded.
MILK AND HONEY, The Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Through Sunday, Nov. 6. $79-$99. 561-995-2333 or visit thewick.org.