What’s the likelihood that a retired kosher butcher would land in a writing class taught by a young woman with the last name of Katzif?
For those who know that “katzif” is Yiddish for butcher, the coincidence is highly unlikely, but it’s sweet nevertheless.
That’s an apt description for “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” the new musical at the Acorn in Theater Row. Riddled with clichés, studded with ancient Borscht Belt jokes, and coated with a thick veneer of sentimentality, the 90-minute show, set in 1986 San Francisco, still manages to be genuinely affecting and enjoyable. Much of the credit goes to lively direction by Evan Pappas and an outstandingly sympathetic and menschy performance from Adam Heller, who plays the one-time butcher and would-be writer.
As the show opens, Harry Weinberg (Heller), a widower, doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself. He misses his wife Frannie (Cheryl Stern) enough to keep up a conversation with her when she pops up in bed next to him. Aside from his daily breakfast of half an English muffin and a little cottage cheese, all he’s got going is the occasional visit to the Shakespeare Garden in Golden Gate Park and a new writing class at the JCC. This brand-new endeavor may be responsible for the bad dreams he’s been having, Frannie helpfully points out, but he’s loathe to give it up. His young teacher, Barbara Katzif (Julia Knitel), seems more than a little lost herself. Only loosely connected to her Jewish identity, the two things she’s sure of are that she is lesbian, and that she wants to preserve Jewish stories, whatever that means. In Harry, she sees the sturdy Jewish grandfather she never had in tony Connecticut. He even corrects her Americanized version of “zaidy” to “zaideh.”
Barbara begins to give Harry writing assignments, encouraging him to write what he sees. First, she asks him to describe an ordinary day, then urges him to focus on the details of what he does and sees. Her assignment to compose a letter to someone personally important who is no longer alive kicks the play’s central motif into gear.
Despite Frannie’s coy insistence that he not write too much about her, Harry instead pens a letter to Harvey Milk, the openly gay Jewish San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated by Dan White in 1978. It turns out that Harvey (Michael Bartoli) not only was a Long Island landsman, but also an occasional customer at Harry’s store. And not only did Harry support his political campaign, he also kept jelly beans in the shop for the “sweet-toothed faigele.” Milk’s murder affected both Harry and Barbara in many different ways, and Barbara is deeply impressed with Harry’s composition.
The musical production number expressing Harry’s — and the city’s — grief after Milk’s death uses the small cast and simple set effectively, but it also offers the banal lyric “if enough of us hold hands, no one can hold a gun.” That sentiment has much more power this month than it may have had when the song was written, but it’s still pretty lame, as are many of the musical’s other lyrics. It’s safe to say that the reputations of songwriters Cole Porter and Frederick Loewe seem secure. The several musicians playing the score in the balcony above the stage is a clever touch.
Still, “A Letter to Harvey Milk” overcomes that lyrical weakness and the occasionally cartoon-like figure of Frannie on the strength of the deeply felt performances of Heller and Knitel and the book’s tight plotting. Both Harry and Barbara have secrets that are eating away at them, and the play, which is based on a short story by Leslea Newman, has secrets of its own, which won’t be spoiled here. Writers Ellen M. Schwartz, Cheryl Stern, Laura I. Kramer, and Jerry James pack a lot into the one-act show and manage to bring it all together at the end.
“A Letter to Harvey Milk” was a selection of the New York Musical Theatre Festival’s 2012 Next Link Project, where it won five awards, including Most Promising Musical. It also was a finalist for the Richard Rodgers Award. Despite a less-than-stellar score, it is a rewarding and touching piece of musical theater.