A Letter to Harvey Milk Review: Gun violence, bigotry, lesbians, the Holocaust, and Borscht Belt gags

Is this the right time for a work of theater that explores the aftereffect of gun violence and bigotry and a flawed criminal justice system? Sure.  How about one that compares Jewish history with LGBTQ history?  Why not? But if I were looking to revive a show that touches on all these issues, it wouldn’t be “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” the well-meaning but self-sabotaging 2018 Off-Broadway musical whose original cast has reunited for a Zoom production on Stellar through April 25.

It is 1986 in San Francisco, and Harry Weinberg (Adam Heller), a retired kosher butcher and widower, stumbles onto a writing class while looking for something to do at the local Jewish Community Center.  He takes the course only out of pity for the young teacher, Barbara Katsef (Julia Knitel), who would have no students without him, and thus not be paid. One of her first assignments is to write a letter “to somebody from your past, somebody who’s no longer with us.” To her surprise, and his own, he doesn’t write to his dead wife, but to Harvey Milk, the city’s first gay supervisor who was killed eight years earlier by his fellow supervisor Dan White, who was sentenced to only five years in prison. It turns out Harry visited Harvey’s camera shop, and Harvey frequented Harry’s butcher shop, where Harry kept a jar of jelly beans just for him.

Barbara is astonished; she idolized Harvey Milk, his death spurring her to come out as a lesbian to her parents back in Connecticut, who haven’t talked to her since.

There is something appealing about their growing relationship, helped along by the actors’ charm and fine voices. She encourages his writing; he introduces her, a secular Jew, to Yiddish culture (it’s a nice touch that her last name means “butcher” in Yiddish), and brings her to a Jewish deli for lunch, where he trades jokes and good-natured ribbing with the staff. 

If the creative team behind “A Letter to Harvey Milk” had been satisfied with focusing on the story of Harry and Barbara, enhanced by Laura I. Kramer’s serviceable if unremarkable score, I probably would have loved it, tolerating a couple of detours and a late-arriving conflict imposed on the odd couple by the four authors credited with the book. I’ll even admit to laughing out loud at some of the Jewish jokes:

“Tell me, what’s the story behind each and every Jewish holiday?” Harry asks after he’s invited Barbra to lunch for the first time.
“They tried to kill us, and they failed—so let’s eat!”

But the musical also indulges in two misguided impulses, which happen to be at war with one another.

The first is to make Harry’s wife a major character, and an unrelenting stereotype. Frannie is portrayed by Cheryl Stern, who is also the co-lyricist and co-librettist.

“Frannie, you’re here?” Harry says in the first scene, having woken up from a nightmare to find his wife by his side.
“You yelled so loud you woke me up.”
“But Frannie… you’re dead.” 
“You yelled very loud.”


Frannie is a jealous scold and a homophobe; she gets an entire cutesy homophobic song:

 “What a shame, what a shanda
A gorgeous face like hers she’s gonna squanda? 
On some schlumpy girl who dresses like a guy?
Tell me why, tell me why!”

…but, at the same time, of course, she’s meant to be lovable.

There is also an ambitious attempt to plug the story into a larger, serious historical context, with actors portraying both Harvey Milk and a victim of the Holocaust four decades earlier. This last involves a secret revealed that I’ll keep quiet about, except to say that I felt manipulated.

I can give the benefit of the doubt to the creative team that they were trying to deliver an important message, but it would probably have taken a Tony Kushner to have pulled it off (Neil Simon might have gotten close.)

To their credit, they have made many changes to the streaming version. For one, it’s now about an hour long, rather than 90 minutes, and they have gotten rid of some of the tasteless juxtapositions (as reported, and slammed, in the original reviews.) Director Evan Pappas has also made some smart adjustments for the Zoom platform, inserting still photographs at propitious moments from the 2018 stage production. But they did not make a change that they should have – adding closed captioning. This felt especially galling because of all of Harry’s self-deprecating jokes about being an alte kaker,  from which I inferred that they saw the ideal audience for this old-fashioned, middle-brow brew of chuckles, cheers, tears and social significance as elderly Jewish theatergoers.

A Letter to Harvey Milk
Streaming on Stellar
April 22-25
$10-$50, a benefit for The Actors Fund and HIAS
running time about 65 minutes
Lrics by Ellen M. Schwartz | Additional lyrics by Cheryl Stern | Music by Laura I. Kramer | Book by Jerry James, Laura I. Kramer, Ellen M. Schwartz, and Cheryl Stern | Based on the short story by Lesléa Newman | Orchestrations by Ned Paul Ginsburg | Music direction by Jeffrey Lodin | Direction by Evan Pappas
Cast: Adam Heller as Harry Weinberg, Julia Knitel as Barbara Katsef, Cheryl Stern as Frannie Weinberg,  Michael Bartoli as Harvey Milk, Jeremy Greenbaum, Aury Krebs and Ravi Roth.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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