There is no risk to presenting a known musical comedy in a local theater situation. You know the crowd will love it, identify with it, and bring friends. It takes a daring group to secure a period piece about self-hatred, assimilation, and internal segregation.
How’s that for an opening line?
The Ridge Repertory Company of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, accepted just such a challenge with a really fine production of Alfred Uhry’s dark comedy, The Last Night of Ballyhoo. This witty dram-edy concerns a Jewish family in Atlanta on the eve of the opening of Gone with the Wind and the Second World War. It relates the pain and irony of assimilation and the fragility of our own realities. Basically Tennessee Williams meets Neil Simon.
The Levys and the Freitags are an extended family of brother Adolph (Steve Aronson) last surviving member of a group of male siblings and siblings-in-law of the family run business; his sister Beulah – or Boo, as she is called – (Marlene Ash) a troubled soul wanting her own piece of the pie – or at least something – anything – for her daughter; their sister-in-law Reba (Suellen Rubin) whose Gracie Allen venire hides a great understanding; Boo’s daughter Lala (Alyson Calder), trapped in the paranoia that her mother and the Jewish aristocracy have built for her; and Reba’s daughter Sunny (Catherine Mancuso), who escaped to school only to learn cruel lessons when she returns home for the holidays. This group wants nothing more than to be part of the Jewish upper-class of Atlanta. Ironically, the Jewish upper-class was formed due to the actual upper-class wanting nothing to do with the Jews of Atlanta. It is this dichotomy that molds our merry band of Jewish Georgians and creates the inner turmoil they all face – in their own ways. Some cases it’s by ignoring their heritage, other cases by molding it to their surrounding, and still others in creating an internal anti-Semitism. Boo’s declaration that Joe is “kike” (done perfectly by Ms. Ash) jarred the entire audience.
The “last night” in questions is a Jews-only cotillion called Ballyhoo and how it has become the place to be for young Hebrew hopefuls. It is this detail that draws in Peachy Weill (Greg Mueller) – a pampered well-to-do Jew – and Joe Farkas (Eric Charles), a salesman in The Freitag family business who discovers he’s from the wrong side of the tracks even in his own backyard.
As the family patriarch, Steve Aronson was superb. Strong presence, metered delivery, and exceptional character quirks made him a solid anchor for the people and plot twists around him; Marlene Ash took a few pages to get cooking as the hostess of the house (the Bally-boosta if you get the Yiddish-infused pun) but then gave us a grand performance filled with desperation, longing, love and loss; Suellen Rubin’s wry delivery and lyrical tone somehow put a rainbow on this cloudy house. The second act allowed her tiny asides about her daughter to bring tears to her and our eyes; Alyson Calder as the needy Lala managed to keep her over-the-top character totally real and accessible. One might find her simply funny until the confrontation with her cousin at the end of the first act when a bravura scene captures the audience; Catherine Mancuso as her cousin Sunny expertly played the one that tries to escape. She contributes beautifully executed moments where we see that her attempt at finding herself makes her find her religion instead.
Lala’s suitor, Peachy, and Sonny’s suitor, Joe, were the perfect ying and yang. Greg Mueller’s hulking frame glided like a ballet dancer across the stage as a pompous brat happy in his exclusionist ways (commanding us to smile), while Eric Charles’ clumsy good hearted Joe falls in love, exudes genuine joy and respect, let’s the costume wear him, and thanks God for it all. His genuine, open-heartedness on that stage made us root for him from the bringing.
The direction by James Martinelli was spot-on – clever and realistic staging, authentic accent and deliveries from his actors, and a depth that comes from a trained eye. One might argue that his pacing could have been a hair faster but when you are dealing with such intricate material, to ere on the side of savoring is really the best decision. The set by Georgie Hall and the lighting by Evan Roby in such an intimate oddly shaped space was nothing short of remarkable and Mikel Frank’s excellent hair and make-up put us squarely in the time before the war to end all wars.
Ridge Rep’s production is truly one of the most professional projects the neighborhood has to offer and should not be missed. One more weekend gives you December 1 and 2 to see this really compelling work… and then it’s gone with the wind.
Jay Michaels is a professional writer and public relations executive for WrightGroupNY Communications, The Bronx Opera, Genesis Repertory, and an international philanthropy.