Off-Broadway Review: “A Letter to Harvey Milk”

Joseph Verlezza

The new musical “A Letter to Harvey Milk” has good intentions but becomes confusing as it attempts to address too many issues and wavers from emotional drama to Borsht Belt comedy. Death and grieving, homosexuality, Judaism, rejection, loneliness, and creativity are just a few of the topics unearthed in a short ninety minutes but never fully developed. It almost seems that the four writers (Ellen M. Schwartz, Cheryl Stern, Laura I. Kramer and Jerry James) collaborated on the book and each chose a favorite issue and ran with it but in all different directions, never ending up in the same place. The lyrics by Ms. Schwartz, with Ms. Stern adding her touch, deal with each scene effectively, whether executed for humor, drama or sentimentality, but seem isolated, not moving the plot forward, but merely contributing to and punctuating each scene. There is no connective tissue. The music is derivative merely serving the lyrics and does not provide emotional reinforcement.

 Photo: Adam Heller, Cheryl Stern, and Julia Knitel in “A Letter to Harvey Milk.” Credit: Russ Rowland.

Photo: Adam Heller, Cheryl Stern, and Julia Knitel in “A Letter to Harvey Milk.” Credit: Russ Rowland.

The story begins as Harry (Adam Heller), a widower, lost and lonely, is lying awake in bed writing and is suddenly visited by his dead wife Frannie (Cheryl L. Stern), who pops out of the bed and lies next to him. She manages to stick around throughout the evening, eaves dropping and boldly commenting on the activities, in a stereotypical rendition of a relentless Jewish mother. Harry discovers a creative writing class at the local community center and is persuaded to join by the writer-blocked teacher Barbara (Julia Knitel) who is a lesbian ostracized by her family. For one assignment Harry writes a letter to Harvey Milk, the openly gay politician, assassinated some eight years ago, with whom he had formed a close father-son relationship. Barbara wants the letter to be published by a gay magazine called “Triangle,” whose logo the pink triangle she also proudly displays on the T-shirt she is wearing. This angers Harry and stirs up buried memories from the past when he was held in a concentration camp and had a brief homosexual encounter with Yussl (Jeremy Greenbaum). All is revealed and resolved in an emotional denouement. Sounds complicated and confusing? It is.

The characters seem to be messengers delivering information without an emotional investment. What adds to the disconnect, is the overload of comic relief and lack of focus on any specific topic. The book manages to provide a catharsis for the characters but not for the audience.

The cast is more than competent but cannot overcome the tedious and disjointed script. Mr. Heller gives a toned down, subtle performance that is sincere and honest. Ms. Knitel turns in a high spirited performance along with a fine vocal. Michael Bartoli gives a believable representation of Harvey Milk. Based on the short story by Leslea Newman, the play deals with an interesting time in the history of the Gay movement but fails to provide a positive outlook or generate interest in the events of the past.    

 

LETTER TO HARVEY MILK

The cast of “A Letter to Harvey Milk” features Michael Bartoli, Jeremy Greenbaum, Adam Heller, Julia Knitel, Aury Krebs, CJ Pawlikowski, and Cheryl Stern.

The creative team includes set design by David Arsenault, costumes by Debbi Hobson, lighting design by Christopher Akerlind, and sound design by David Margolin Lawson. Sara Sahin serves as production stage manager. Production photos by Russ Rowland.

“A Letter to Harvey Milk” runs through Sunday May 13, 2018 at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre (410 West 42nd Street) on the following performance schedule: Tuesdays - Thursdays at 7:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m.; Matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2:00 p.m.; Sunday at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $79.00 - $99.00 and can be purchased at www.Telecharge.com, by calling 212-239-6200, or by visiting https://www.lettertoharveymilk.com/. Running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes without intermission.