by Samuel L. Leiter
Bankers, stockbrokers, financiers, hedge fund managers, investors—all you one-percenters—have I got a show for you! Everyone else, save your money. But if you’re panting for a show about moneymaking, with dialogue sprinkled with sexy words like stocks, bonds, currency, investments, interest, loans, payments, profit, and loss, then hop into your limo and have your driver drop you off at Off Broadway’s York Theatre Company, where Rothschild & Sons, with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Sherman Yellen, is playing.
If you’re thinking that there’s already a musical about the Rothschilds by this very team, you’re right. The Rothschilds opened in 1970 and ran for 505 performances, with Hal Linden (who won the Tony) as the patriarch, Mayer Rothschild. There was also a successful Off Broadway revival in 1990, with Robert Cuccioli as Nathan, one of Mayer’s sons. Cuccioli now plays Mayer in this stripped-down, hour and 45-minute, one-act version of the original.
While the trajectory of the plot, covering the rags to riches story of the German-Jewish Rothschild family, is intact, various incidents and characters have been excised, and several musical numbers not in the original have been included, with new lyrics by the 91-year-old Harnick. The Broadway version had a cast of almost 50, while the new staging uses only 11, some of whom play several roles. Dance was also a prominent factor in the original (iconic director-choreographer Michael Kidd helmed it), but the few moments of choreography at the York (credited to Denis Jones) look more like staged movement than dance.
Harnick and Bock (who died in 2010) created Fiddler on the Roof. Rothschild & Sons has a number of parallels to that great musical. Each focuses on a proud Jewish patriarch, his supportive wife, Gutele (Glory Crampton), and a brood of five children over whose welfare their parents obsess. The Rothschild offspring are boys, unlike Tevye and Golde’s daughters; the Rothschilds live in a German ghetto while Tevye’s family resides in a Russian shtetl. However, while Rothschild starts out as a poor peddler but becomes a financial titan, Tevye remains a poor milkman, only dreaming “If I Were a Rich Man.”
The episodic show (based on a book by Frederick Morton) begins with Mayer’s days as a Frankfurt peddler in 1772, when, by selling rare coins, he ingratiates himself with Prince William of Hesse (Mark Pinter). The crafty Mayer convinces the prince to approve his marriage to Gutele, at a time when only a dozen local Jewish couples a year were allowed to wed. He becomes an agent for court bankers, fathers five boys in rapid succession, trains them in business, shares their desire to see the walls of Europe’s ghettos torn down, sends them off to collect the money owed throughout Europe to Prince William, and has his son Nathan (Christopher M. Williams) invest that money in England. (The original’s romance between Nathan and the wealthy Britisher Hannah Cohen is gone.) Eventually, his dealings with Prince Metternich (Pinter, again), who at first reneges on his promise to remove restrictions against the Jews, succeed, and the House of Rothschild, granted a barony, climbs ever higher in wealth and position.
The tech and design elements all click, from Carrie Robbin’s period-appropriate costumes to Kirk Bookman’s creative lighting to James Morgan’s simple set of black walls, with sconces, leading in perspective to a rear wall with an opening for dramatic entrances. Although quality performers, Glory Crampton and Broadway star Robert Cuccioli never rise above being conventionally glamorous leads. Most interesting is Mark Pinter in his several aristocratic roles, displaying something of the colorful versatility that helped Keene Curtis win a Tony for these roles in The Rothschilds.
Still, even a smoothly professional production can’t hide the doldrums that eventually set in with a disappointingly bland score that reveals little of the emotional or humorous impact of Fiddler, and whose sole familiar number, the power ballad “In My Own Lifetime,” needs new batteries. With a script that eliminates romance and, except in dribs and drabs, comedy, this is a show that even Mayer Rothschild might have considered flat, stale, and, worst of all, unprofitable.
Rothschild & Sons
York Theatre Company/The Theater at St. Peter’s
619 Lexington Avenue, NYC
Through November 8
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).