Milk and Honey - Part 1 of the Jerry Herman Triptych
Jerry Herman’s first Broadway musical Milk and Honey was a real hit with the audience last night at the beautifully appointed Melbourne Recital Centre.
Milk and Honey is the first in a triptych by Magnormos, to be followed by Dear World next Monday 11th July and then Hello Dolly! on Monday 18th July. The air of anticipation was evident in the foyer as many theatre performers and lovers of theatre came together to see Milk and Honey.
In researching the story for this show, I read an article by Alisa Solomon who describes Herman’s delight at hearing the song ‘Shalom’, one of the songs from the show, in a Manhattan grocery store months after the show first opened in 1961. Hearing one of the key songs from the show indicated to Jerry Herman that he had indeed experienced his first ‘jolt of success’. Of course he went on to greater successes with Hello Dolly in 1964, Mame in 1966, Dear World in 1969, Mack and Mable in 1974 and La Cage aux Folles in 1983 to name some of his Broadway hits.
In the unusual story of Milk and Honey, Herman explores the concepts of love for not only the young but the young at heart, the importance and recognition of traditions and the challenges that the human condition presents in all communities. The story is about finding love the second time around and contrasts to the subplots of the relationships of the younger adults in the story and the development of the fledgling nation. Solomon describes the essence of the show as being ‘ an upbeat comedy about a pair of middle-aged American tourists who meet in Israel and fall in love with each other and the 13 year old Jewish state.’
The creative team who packaged the show we witnessed had obviously invested a great deal of thought for a ‘one off’ performance. Avigail Herman’s directed was slick and ensured that for the most part the show ran very smoothly. Cameron Thomas and his team of three other on stage musicians ensured a rich sound both vocally and instrumentally. It was Michael Ralph’s choreography and musical staging that was truly impressive. Given that the cast had very little in the way of set, costume or props, the stage was used so well in movement and dance. Whilst some of the principal performers used their scripts from time to time, the majority of the minor principals and ensemble did not have scripts and were seemingly faultless in their execution of their movement, dance, lines and vocals. As this was to be a reading, with scripts in hand, it was virtually a show in itself.
The Melbourne Recital Centre is a magnificent performance space and the technical aspects of the evening were highly professional. There were a few sound issues at the start of the show but they were very quickly ironed out. Lighting by Lucy Birkinshaw Campbell was used to effect and assisted the changes in mood and place. Projections depicting scenes from Israel also helped the audience understand the settings. Credits have been given to Emma Kennedy for costume design but interestingly most seemed to wear modern clothing in shades of black and grey.
Seasoned performer Greg Ross played builder Phil Arkin with tenderness and charm. He also was relaxed and strong with the vocal aspects of the role. Michelle Fitzmaurice’s Ruth Stein was reserved and whilst some of the vocals proved a challenge during the first act she delivered the second act vocals with more confidence. Sophie Carter as Clara Weiss was the stand out performer of the evening, providing excellent comic timing and proving to be in fine voice with all her numbers. Jarrod Newall similarly had a stunning voice and sang "I will follow you" to a huge round of applause from the appreciative audience. Joseph Naim gave a strong performance as Adi the young man seeking the comforts of American life. Rose Sejean waddled as his very pregnant wife for the entire show. The husband-seeking widows on the tour comprised a group of well known faces including Lauren Elise, Zule Khan and Maree Barnett. They all looked far too young to be widows but managed to develop characters through their interactions with the main players. Finally, Mark Doggett’s cameo as Mr Horowitz was subtle and a perfect foil for Mrs Weiss.
It was interesting to see Milk and Honey and I doubt whether it will ever appear in Melbourne again. In a sense it is encapsulated in it’s own time. It is a glimpse of a new nation, a generation of young people trying to create a life for themselves and the story of two people trying to resolve the intricacies of middle age that is tied neatly together by Jerry Herman’s score. The performers made the audience care about their predicaments and decisions. However very few of the patrons last night would have many connections to Israel in the 1960s and in some ways I felt a little disconnected from the story. Yet this show is indicative of greater things to come. There was certainly evidence of the characters, stirring marches, and fabulous ballads that we have come to know from a Jerry Herman show, in this his first show. Those around us agreed that it was definitely a ‘cute show’. I would highly recommend that all theatre lovers go to see the next two shows in the following weeks. Once again Magnormos have brought a unique piece of musical theatre to many who love this genre.