Picture this: Cleveland. The '80s. The only Jewish family for miles. A gay boy growing up. What to make out of it all? What else -- a musical! Jeffrey Marshek has taken events of his life, set them to various styles of music, and come up with a show that has highs and lows, good bits and bits less good, plenty of weird characters, and has made himself the hero, while playing all the parts. Just like real life.
And he's got lots of material, so much that some interesting bits get lost in the shuffle -- what was that about his mother painting pottery? -- and lots of fleeting fads get remembered (grapefruit diet, powerwalking, St. John's wort). But through it all is a kid trying to figure out who he is, how he got where he is, why no one recognizes his special qualities, and how does he get out of there without hurting too many feelings? So there's a song that incorporates the Passover query "Manesh Ta Na" into a Devo-style sort-of-rap number, surely a new way of presenting it; buying a Bar Mitzvah suit (Dad: "Looks sharp!" Mom: "Looks continental!"); bad psychotherapy; confiscated pot smoked by the parents; brother in rehab.
Some of the humor had a sit-com feel to it, but real emotion did emerge -- mom's experience of family therapy, or the song "Worth It," a plaintive ballad with a beat, where Marshek stopped making fun of everyone and let a fuller picture emerge.
But wait, there's more -- Grandma's in a nursing home; Dad's blowhard tendencies continue to assert themselves; time marches on, boy grows up. In a rock ballad (Blondie-style) Jeff proclaims to his father that "Money = Love" is bogus; and most human of all, and the best bit of acting in the whole piece, is Mom's reaction to Jeff's coming out -- and oh yes, his boyfriend's black. Marshek's expression as Mom was simple, complex, touching, and very, very funny.
Not all the writing, acting and directing was at that level -- another plaintive ballad ("Pick That Scab") is overly poetical and metaphoric on the simple topic of wanting unconditional love; Dad's style became a little wearing. But Marshek does give the old man a moment during their joint powerwalk when he brings up the gay topic, and it is handled sensitively.
In fact, in spite of being the brunt of a trunkload of jokes, the family seems human, if not quite recognizable. The show is clearly a labor of love for Marshek, a kind of exorcism-by-storytelling. He's fond of them all, even if he's glad to be far away from them. Because at the end of the day, you don't work as hard as he did on that stage, and expend that kind of energy, unless you really, really like the characters you're playing. And if they saw it, they'd like themselves too.
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Copyright 2004 David Mackler