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November 20, 2015

DUDDY KRAVITZ: The OTHER Best Musical of 2015.

Yes, HAMILTON, the show that everyone’s raving about, is the unquestioned musical champ of the nation.

But in a nation not so far away another masterpiece was produced in 2015. Thanks to The Segal Centre for Performing Arts, THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ received a June production in Montreal. That’s a fitting locale, for much of the musical based on Mordecai Richler’s 1959 novel and 1974 screenplay takes place in that city.

You ask, “Haven’t I heard of this musical before?” Sure, if you were paying attention to musicals in the mid-late ‘80s. Richler was adapting his book to a score by (are you sitting down?) Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Yes, the SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ guys who wrote “Stand by Me.”

But Richler eventually decided not to stand by them. The lyricist would be newcomer David Spencer and the composer was Alan Menken.

Although LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and its titanic success had already occurred, Alan Menken wasn’t yet A-L-A-N M-E-N-K-E-N. Disney was needed for that to happen, but, as we all know, happen it did.

Austin Pendleton, who was then best known as an actor (FIDDLER ON THE ROOF) but had a Tony nomination for directing a LITTLE FOXES revival, wrote the book and staged a 1987 Philadelphia production. Lonny Price was magnificent as the young Jewish-Canadian whose grandfather tells him that “a man without land is nobody.” To make his zeyda proud – and for that reason more than any other (which makes us like him) -- Duddy will move if not heaven and earth, then certainly his Montreal neighborhood to please his grandfather and honor him by heeding his advice.

Although Broadway producers were attached, they didn’t move DUDDY ninety miles north, so that seemed to be that. But as we’ve seen from such shows as AT THE GRAND (a 1958 musical that closed in San Francisco and yet became a hit as GRAND HOTEL 31 years later), some old musicals never die -- and they don’t even necessarily fade away. Many just need one additional ingredient, and I’m here to tell you that Spencer has now provided it: a new book. That led to 3/4ths of a new score. That made virtually a new show in 2015.

I’m not the only one impressed by Spencer’s finding the compassion and heart where there had previously been a
too-tart show. Obviously Pendleton was swayed, too, for he agreed to direct the Montreal production even without his book. Many in his position would have refused, but he simply loved the new treatment too much not to return.

At show’s start, Duddy’s widowed father Max, who also narrates, is in the neighborhood lunch-counter with his pals. He reminisces and admits that his son was “born on the wrong side of the tracks with a rusty spoon in his mouth.” Because Max is a taxi-driver, he’s like many working-class dads who want their sons to succeed, but not too much or too fast, lest their triumphs underline their fathers’ comparative failures.

Although Max likes to boast of “driving the great and near great all over town” – and loves to point out the newspaper article in which he’s mentioned in passing – way down deep he knows where he stands in the world. At best he made it to the first or second rung of the miles-high career ladder.

Duddy’s brother, on course to be a doctor, has little respect for Duddy’s ambitions. “Don’t try to be a somebody,” Lenny warns while condescendingly hitting the brim of Duddy’s baseball cap. (The show takes place in 1950, long before men started wearing their baseball caps with the visors backwards, which they now do even on days when the sun is murderously bright.)

Max also aggrandizes himself as a pal of “The Boy Wonder,” né Jerry Dingelman, the local self-made successful entrepreneur. Duddy’s hot to meet him, but Max says that that will only happen “when you’re ready.” We know it’s a dodge, for Max has no special relationship with the “neighborhood benefactor.” Eighteen-year old Duddy doesn’t know that – not yet.

“The answer is to hatch yourself a plot to get yourself a plot,” Duddy sings in one of Spencer’s most deft lyrics. Hence, he’ll become a waiter at “a place where important people stay” in an upscale-to-him Canadian resort town.

Here the property could just as easily be called THE EDUCATION OF DUDDY KRAVITZ, for the lad wises up fast after interacting with Irwin Shubert, a young waiter his age who makes patently clear that he and his “colleagues” think they’re far superior to him. (“I smell the pungency of St. Urbain Street,” he snarls.) Duddy will do anything to show that he’s their equal – or their superior: “My father’s in the transport business and I’m making a study of the hotel industry, like.”

Boasting isn’t enough; money will be needed to make a big impression. If Duddy isn’t 100% ethical in getting it, well, didn’t Balzac say that “Behind every fortune lies a great crime?” Besides, Duddy’s being treated unfairly because he’s the lower-class new kid -- even by the chef, delivering plates of food to the other waiters far more speedily.

So Duddy clandestinely bribes the chef, reversing the situation. Besting the rivals makes Duddy more of a target. What we see, however, is that the system is the real problem and not he.

Hating how the other waiters treat Duddy makes chambermaid Yvette identify and bond with him: “Deep down inside, I’m a rebel, too.” On a quasi-date, she takes him to her favorite rustic spot near a beautiful lake, and suddenly Duddy has found his piece of profitable land on which he’ll build his own resort.

We wince as he makes a majeur faux pas by offering Yvette $50 on the condition that she tell no one else about the land. At first, Duddy is at a loss to understand why she’s highly insulted. Again, we can pardon him because the (literally) poor kid has been taught all his life that money solves everything. He learns here that it doesn’t always.

Nineteen-fifty is still a time where many Christians don’t want Jews living near them. So Duddy needs Yvette to buy the land for him. Now, he feels, “they’ll see me as a man” and best of all, he’ll tell his grandfather that he’ll “save the greenest field on it for you.” Duddy’s wanting to please a doting grandparent – and which of us wouldn’t? -- makes us care about him and keeps him from coming across as a merely craven social-climber.

Max has his misgivings and worries about his older son, too. Lenny is a medical student who’s rejecting his roots for a different kind of social climbing. In one of the show’s funniest lines, he says Duddy in all earnestness, “Let me tell you about that new bunch he’s hanging out with: I don’t know” – for that’s about as much as Max can “tell.” (Little does Duddy know that he’ll have to solve his brother’s upcoming problem, too.)

At a college lecture, Duddy meets British-born film director Peter John Friar – bibulous, alcoholic and convinced he was nearly a major director until he was blacklisted. Otherwise, would he agree to Duddy’s plan to make movies of bar-mitzvahs? Some nice klezmer riffs, thanks to Oran Eldor’s savvy orchestration, enhance the orchestration in which the refrain assures us that “Art and Commerce (can be friends).”

We’re starting to like Duddy, but can we possibly like Max? When Duddy says “I’ll make you proud, Daddy,” Max responds with a droning “Yeah, yeah, we’ll see.” How can we have sympathy for a father so drowned in disappointments that he can’t see more for his son? But one line makes us care about him. For in the midst of this “a man without land is nobody” story, Max describes Duddy’s late mother to him: “Now there’s somebody who was somebody.” Nice!

Things go horribly wrong for Duddy. “How could all this happen in two days?” he moans. Ah, but the best musicals make things happen FAST. And in the grand musical tradition, immediately after something wonderful happens that makes Duddy feel successful, disaster strikes.

This involves his newfound friend Virgil, an epileptic who’s a wonderfully guileless guy. (Lovely is the one thing he can do.) Duddy needs him to transport his wares, and though Yvette warns him that an epileptic shouldn’t be driving, Duddy doesn’t take her advice. Indeed, Virgil does get into an accident and winds up a paraplegic.

Yes, that’s pretty severe for a musical, and we could hate Duddy for putting Virgil (literally) on the road to disaster. But Spencer’s writing makes us realize that Duddy wasn’t uncaring; he just naively saw things going so well in his life that he simply couldn’t foresee anything bad happening. Similarly speaking, when Duddy later winds up blackmailing Dingelman, we’ve learned in the interim that the guy deserved the punishment.

Spencer and Menken learned their trades at the Lehman Engel-BMI Musical Theatre Workshop where Spencer now teaches. He’s ensuring that the new generation of lyricists has a profound respect for craft. The ostensible rhyming of “M’s” with “N’s” is not tolerated, nor is the linking of singulars with plurals. And woe to the student who puts the emphasis on the wrong sy-LAB-ble. In DUDDY, Spencer shows that he certainly practices what he preaches.

Nothing against anything that Menken has done for Disney, but his music here is far more sophisticated. The zest in “What a Liar!” – in which one of Duddy’s would-be customers relishes Duddy’s brazen chutzpah -- is just a warm-up for the second-act opener – one of the most felicitous I’ve ever witnessed in more than a half-century of paying attention to musicals: “Turn It Around” occurs when matters look unremittingly bleak until Virgil encourages Duddy to take matters into his own hands – which he does.

Some people have a sleepless night after they’ve watched a scary movie; I often can’t get to sleep because the intoxicating melody of “Turn It Around” keeps turning around in my brain.

And yet, the song that has had people cheering from the first Philadelphia performance is “Welcome Home,” in which Yvette makes Duddy confront what consequential manhood really means – and the redemption therein if he can make the crossing. You’ll soon get the chance to hear it -- one of the greatest eleven o’clock ballads of all time -- for even if (God forbid) THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ doesn’t get to Broadway, a cast album is currently being readied.

And what a cast. I certainly don’t want to take any work away from any American actors, but I’d love to see Actors Equity allow the exemplary Canadian cast to come in toto to Broadway at least for a limited engagement. Everyone – from the indefatigable Ken James Stewart as Duddy to the endearing David Coomber as Virgil -- is Broadway-caliber top-notch.

There will be a day in the near-future when the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre will become available. How about giving it to THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ so that the two Best Musicals of 2015 can be neighbors? Art and art can be friends, too.

         — Peter Filichia



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