Musical Docu-Drama "Stars of David" Assembles Talent Galore

The musical adaptation of "Stars of David" celebrates notable Jews exploring their faith.

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 31, 2012

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Donna Vivano channels actress-producer Fran Drescher in "Stars of David." (Photo by Mark Garvin)

It’s probably safe to say that never before in theater history have so many award-winning lyricists, composers and playwrights collaborated on a single show as the artists assembled to give voice to the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s world premiere musical, Stars of David. Conceived by Aaron Harnick, the mildly entertaining one-act musical is based on Abigail Pogrebin’s acclaimed book Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish, in which Pogrebin interviews 61 public figures about the role—if any—Judaism plays in their lives.

In Stars, Pogrebin—referred to as Nancy and capably portrayed by Nancy Balbirer—embarks on the book project as a way to explore the role her faith plays in her life. She becomes obsessed with it, to the detriment of her relationship with her daughter (Donna Vivino), who is planning her bat mitzvah, and her overbearing mother (the wonderful Joanna Glushak). The effect is that Nancy and her family—including her husband, played by the excellent Brad Oscar—act as a sort of touchstone that succeeds in making Stars more than just a series of 11 disconnected interviews. In many ways, Stars’ construction is the most interesting thing about it; although the interviewees’ words are not used verbatim, the show is essentially a musical docu-drama.

While most musicals develop a character over the course of several hours and numerous tunes, in Stars, each character—with the exception of Nancy and her family—is represented with a single song, each penned by a different composer working alone or in tandem with a lyricist. The idea is that by doing so, each character will speak in their own unique, distinctive musical voice. The songs from the nearly 20 award-winning composers and lyricists are mostly quick little ditties, often more humorous than poignant. The lyrics are clever, though instead of providing deep insight into each subject’s relationship with their faith, the songs are more like comic strips attempting to tell a story in a mere handful of panels. Among the most interesting is “Horrible Seders,” composed by Philadelphian Michael Friedman, who is best known for his rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Transforming Pogrebin’s chat with playwright Tony Kushner (Alex Brightman) into song, “Seders” eloquently captures Kushner’s comments about how the anti-Semitism he faced as a child prepared him for the intense homophobia he would encounter as one of America’s most outspoken gay men.

Stars offers few impersonations; its five actors are more interested in expressing the characters’ thoughts than their physical quirks. The exception is when the interviewee being portrayed is an actor or actress with especially distinctive mannerisms (e.g., Joan Rivers).

PTC producing director Sara Garonzik says Stars already has designs on Broadway, and veteran producer Daryl Roth reportedly has some interest in taking it to New York. The musical has changed dramatically since it first appeared last spring at Philadelphia Theatre Company’s new festival, PTC @ Play, and Garonzik says librettist Charles Busch was tinkering with the show’s book up until opening night. (The program includes a song by Hairspray composer Mark Shaman titled “Millionaire Matchmaker” for a section on Jewish comic Andy Cohen that was apparently cut at the last moment.) If indeed there is a future for Stars, plenty of additional material could yet be drawn from its source well, as the musical includes only a dozen of the 61 interviews contained in Pogrebin’s book—still waiting to be adapted are the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Sarah Jessica Parker and Rep. Barney Frank.

Through Nov. 18. $51-$56. Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard sts. 215.985.0420.

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