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A CurtainUp Review
Shlemiel the First


Where is it written you gotta be happy?.— Mrs. Shlemiel
Shlemiel the First
Amy Warren and Michael Iannucci in Shlemiel the First
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
A shlemiel, according to Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish, is “a born loser; a submissive and uncomplaining victim.” He even gives us a Yiddish proverb that explains the term better: “The shlemiel falls on his back and breaks his nose.”

In Shlemiel the First Robert Brustein’s musical adaptation of the Isaac Bashevis Singer play, with lyrics by Arnold Weinstein and klezmer-inspired music by Hankus Netsky, Shlemiel does not break his nose. He does, through a highly comedic series of events, manage to leave home on a mission to spread the fame of the wisest man of Chelm (in Yiddish folklore, a town singularly lacking in wise men) and end up unknowingly coming back to his home town.

With all the inhabitants of this town, including his wife and two children, looking just like those in Chelm, who can blame the poor shlemiel from coming to the logical conclusion that he has chanced upon an exact replica of his very own Chelm? Happily, in this alternate Chelm, his children are more respectful and his wife is more loving.

The wisest man of this town insists that Shlemiel must keep his hands off his duplicate wife. But flesh is feeble, and soon Shlemiel discovers that even sex is better in Chelm 2. It takes the wife of the wisest man of Chelm to straighten things out and prove “The women were always wise. They knew how dumb the men were.”

Shlemiel the First was first produced in 1994 at Boston’s American Repertory Theater. For those who missed it and subsequent performances, it's back, thanks to Theater for a New Audience, the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, and other presenters, directed and choreographed by David Gordon.

The musical stars Michael Iannucci as the lovable Shlemiel and and Amy Warren as his sharp-tongued wife, his “shlemielika.” Iannucci and Warren fill the stage with many warm and loving moments. Most of the other actors play multiple roles. And the ensemble, made up of the various wise men of Chelm, don stuffed bosoms and aprons to become the wives of Chelm.

Robert Israel has created a set with a crazily slanting floor and walls and doors tilting every which way, fancifully capturing the skewed thinking of the people of Chelm. A doorway in the middle of the stage separates indoor and outdoor scenes. And Gordon has found a perfectly delightful way of using musicians and actors to change scenes, with a few surprises too delicious to reveal.

Throughout the show the lively klezmer music and the catchy lyrics accompany and enhance the action. What’s more, klezmer, a mixture of Greek and Central/Eastern European music traditionally played at Jewish celebrations, with its graceful, flowing melodies is also capable of capturing highly emotional moments.

Shlemiel the First offers many lessons. Fools can be wise, and those who think they are wise are often fools. Practical women are almost always wiser than their pompous husbands. Sometimes compassion is more important than wisdom. Goodness is the glue of human existence. And best of all, to appreciate all these lessons — you don’t have to be Jewish!

Shlemiel the First
Based on the play by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Conceived and adapted by Robert Brustein
Lyrics by Arnold Weinstein
Composed, adapted and orchestrated by Hankus Netsky
Arrangements, additional music and music direction by Salmon Mlotek
Direction, choreography and editorial supervision by David Gordon
Cast: Michael Iannucci and Amy Warren; also Bob Ader, Jeff Brooks, Jesse Means, David Skeist, Darryl Winslow and Kristine Zbornik
Set Designer: Robert Israel
Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton
Sound Designer: David Meschter Running Time: 2hours, one intermission
Theatre for a New Audience, National Yiddish Theatre - Folksbiene
New York University's Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts 566 LaGuardia Place
From 12/13/11; opening 12/15/11; closing 12/31/11
Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 7:00pm with an additional Monday evening performance at 7:00pm on December 26. Matinees are Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2:00pm with and an additional 2:00pm matinee Friday, December 23 and one 3:00pm Sunday matinee December 18
Tickets: $75, students, and 25 or under $10 (866) 811-4111 or
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Dec. 15, 2011
Musical Numbers
Act One
    Wake Up Song
  • Shlemiel's SongWe're Talking Chelm
  • Yenta's Blintzes
  • Beadle with a Dreydle
  • I'm Going to Die
  • Missionary Tour
  • Geography Song
  • My One and Only Shlemiel
  • Rascal's Song
Act Two
  • Reprise: My One and Only Shlemiel
  • Meshugah
  • Twos
  • The Screen Song
  • Can This Be Hell?
  • Matters of the Heart
  • Wisdom
  • Reprise: We're Talking Chelm

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