A charming discovery has been made by the York Theatre Company for its Musicals in Mufti series. “Bar Mitzvah Boy” began as a teleplay in England, was turned into a stage musical there, and had a brief run in New York in 1987 with an American Jewish Theater production at the 92nd Street Y. Unfortunately, the “Bar Mitzvah Boy” musical is currently little known despite its score by the late renowned Jule Styne.
The virtues of the work become delightfully clear in this new venue, which has lyrics by Don Black, a new book by David Thompson (original book by Jack Rosenthal) and new musical arrangements by David Loud. Chief among the pleasures is the captivating performance by 13-year-old Peyton Link as Eliot Green, who, at 13, is being prepared in the Jewish family tradition for a Bar Mitzvah, the religious ceremony signifying his moving from adolescence to manhood. But poor Eliot is troubled by doubts. What can he do?
Meanwhile, his parents, cab driver Victor Green (Ned Eisenberg) and his mother, Rita (Lori Wilner) are steeped in preparations for the event, which they are turning into a major social opportunity with a huge guest list. The show deftly captures the near hysteria, especially by Rita, who is so anxious for everything to go right, and boy, can Wilner sing her woes.
But Eliot, who addresses his concerns to the audience in word and song, is nervous. Apart from having to memorize what he must recite in Hebrew as part of the ceremony, he has grave doubts about the lives and behavior of the adults around him whom he will be symbolically joining. Eliot fervently wishes he didn’t have to go through with it all.
Link, whose young career includes having been in a revival of “Falsettos,” is good-looking and charismatic. He connects charmingly with an audience and projects talent beyond his years, whether by his acting or showing off a pleasing voice. One can expect him to go far, and the York scored a coup in casting him.
Styne wrote some lovely songs, as well as amusing ones, and Don Black provided witty lyrics. Although the family and confirmation ritual is Jewish, this is also a broader growing up story about a sensitive lad trying to come to terms with his life. Annette Jolles has directed with a feeling for both the comedy and the humanity in the work. The plot indulges in some amusing but questionable religious manipulation to arrive at a resolution.
Typically, this Mufti presentation is bare-bones, with cast members having less than a week to prepare and allowed to have scripts in hand. Musical direction is by Darren R. Cohen, who is also the one man “orchestra” at the piano. The production conveys so much spirit that it feels almost like a full-fledged mounting. At the York Theater Company at Saint Peters, 619 Lexington Avenue (at 54th Street). Phone: 212-935-5820. Reviewed February 12, 2018.