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By D. A. Blackburn
The Second City opened a revival production of “Jewsical! The Musical” on July 9 to a packed house, but few guests offered toasts of Mazel Tov at the curtain call. While the show succeeded as a lighthearted commentary of Jewish culture, and garnered some laughs, it simply lacked the irreverence we’ve come to expect from Second City productions.
“Jewsical!” is staged as a 90-minute, five-player review, with several injections of loosely structured improvisational comedy. The effect of this design is a somewhat disjointed show, which seems to lose thematic focus with its forays into improv. In fact, it’s the improv that proves the least entertaining, and ultimately detracts from some solid comedic writing.
Sketches about the Jewish dating service J-Date and a visit to a Thai/Kosher fusion restaurant are genuinely funny, as are a number of short punch line skits staged between longer bits. Other highlights include a marriage therapy session with Joseph and the Virgin Mary, and a humorous exchange between a rabbi and a teen at his bar mitzvah. Though a bit dated – the show is now a well-worn work for the company – a sketch about electing Joe Lieberman to the presidency works because of its slight modernization.
“Jewsical!” is certainly not lacking for material, but it falls down in how it approaches its theme. It panders to stereotypes rather than attacks them. In its 50-year history, The Second City has developed a reputation for biting, no-holds-barred comedy. “Jewsical!” is anything but. It lacks the gusto and fire that have made The Second City a household name. Good comedy requires some level of risk, and this work plays it too safe, barely touching the envelope, let alone pushing it.
For their part, the five-member cast navigates the work with poise. Though not giving a terrific showing in the improv sections, they are funny and charismatic when bound by the script. Sara Fox and Knute Horwitz show tremendous vocal prowess with the show’s musical numbers, well above the average comedic performer. Fox, particularly, shines when singing, and performs with great energy and enthusiasm.
Horwitz, while improvising, demonstrates the talents that have brought him considerable success in the field of voice-over recording, shifting gears with ease and creating, among other characters, a wholly believable Greek restaurant owner.
Vanessa Bayer creates a perfectly stereotypical talk show host – think “Saturday Night Live’s” reoccurring “Coffee Talk” skit – and creates a Virgin Mary with a strikingly funny edge and a New York accent.
Andrew Ritter transitions from one character to another with ease, providing both a nervous bar mitzvah and a perfectly irate Joseph, who is trying to salvage his marriage to an abstinent and seemingly crazy Mary. Detroit native Mike Shreeman, likewise, shifts easily from scene to scene.
“Jewsical!” gets a good showing from its talented cast, and as they’d say in the skit “Yiddish 101,” this goy hates to be a kvetch, but it left me a little farklempt.
‘Jewsical! The Musical’
Second City Theatricals, The Second City, 42705 Grand River Ave., Novi. Wed.-Sun., through Sep. 7. Tickets: $15-$20. For information: 248-348-4448 or http://www.secondcity.com.