With very few exceptions, the composers of the Broadway theater during the 20th century were of Jewish heritage, some of them immigrants from Eastern Europe. That cultural anomaly was examined in song a year ago in a revue dubbed To Life, named for a number in Fiddler on the Roof.
Since it proved popular with the audience at Boca Raton’s Willow Theatre, that show has now spawned a sequel, called predictably To Life 2 and subtitled, a bit loquaciously, More Stories and Music Celebrating the Contributions of Jewish Composers to the Golden Age of Broadway.
The stories are mostly handled by emcee Jeffrey Bruce, who sits on a stool and fills us in on arcane facts and gossip, groaner puns, trivia about his own career and the occasional misstatement. (Aside to Bruce: Kander and Ebb did not write Evita.) Every now and then, he moves to center stage and delivers such solos as Peter Pan’s “Never Never Land” and “Kids” from Bye Bye Birdie, quite credibly.
Most of the vocals, however, are handled by a foursome of genuine singers. While these familiar area performers handle the material well, none of them, I believe, is Jewish. That is a curious casting choice by director-choreographer Shari Upbin, although, until the 1960s, the show’s Jewish composers – from Irving Berlin to the Gershwin brothers to Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart to Harold Arlen and many others – avoided writing Jewish characters or story lines.
Still, Wayne LeGette, the only cast holdover from the first To Life, knows how to channel a Jewish flavor as he demonstrates quite effectively in “My Yiddishe Momme,” a tribute to vaudevillian Sophie Tucker that is a bit off-topic, and “If I Were a Rich Man,” a showstopper from Fiddler. And once you cast Michael McKenzie, it is inevitable that he will sing “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha, a crowd-pleaser he performed recently in MNM Theatre Company’s production at the Kravis Center last year.
Amy Miller Brennan gets to belt a stirring “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from Funny Girl and “Maybe This Time,” from the movie version of Cabaret. But it is Mallory Newbrough who raises the ambient temperature of the Willow Theatre with the title tune from Cabaret and sniffles her way through “Adelaide’s Lament” from Guys & Dolls infectiously.
With a tight, intermissionless 90-minute running time, so much potential material had to be left out, or perhaps Upbin and the show’s writer-conceiver Scott Siegel are planning another sequel. Still, for a revue about Broadway songs, how did such Hollywood numbers as Swing Time’s “A Fine Romance” and A Star Is Born’s “The Man That Got Away” get included? And if the idea is to showcase Jewish composers, why do we get a number by George M. Cohan? And while we are quibbling, how come Kander and Ebb rate four songs, but Stephen Sondheim only gets one?
None of these questions seemed to have bothered the audience at Friday’s opening night performance. They sang along to the more familiar tunes, often before being asked. To Life 2 clearly entertained them and they may have learned a few things, too.
Editor’s note: This review has been revised to correct two errors of performer attribution.
TO LIFE 2, Willow Theatre, Sugar Sand Park, 300 S. Military Trail, Boca Raton. Through Sunday, Feb. 2. $40. 561-347-3948.