Off Broadway Reviews
at The New York Musical Festival
Although I can't say for sure that The Gold, playing at the Pearl Theatre as part of the New York Musical Festival, is the first musical ever written by a plastic surgeon, I'll be glad to make a wager that, if there are others, it's among the most ambitious. For his first time at bat, Philip Yosowitz (who has a practice in Houston) has chosen World War II, the extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust, and the formation of Israel as the major waypoints in his story, which spans some 20 years and covers roughly half the globe. For pure chutzpah alone, Yosowitz is unmatched in newer musical theatre writers in recent memory.
How good is the show? We'll come back to that. First, let's investigate its wide-ranging plot. Joseph (Josh Davis) and Karl (Steven Grant Douglas) are competing German boxers who both hope to represent their country at the 1936 Olympics; Josh also displays not a little romantic interest in Sarah (Karis Danish), the best friend of Karl's sister, Gabrielle (Jenn Malenke)whom Karl also wants for his own. This rivalry alone would be enough to power many plays, but Yosowitz is just getting started, as the rising Nazi threat means that superior boxer Joseph, who's Jewish (and has the last name Cohen), gets politically pushed aside for Karl. And though Joseph ends up getting Sarah, to whom Karl remains powerfully devoted, broken hearts and souls still taint the men's relationship.
A child, a boy named Aaron, follows, but as it becomes increasingly dangerous for Joseph and Sarah, and Karl capitulates and becomes a Nazi soldier, the couple is forced to leave Aaron with Gabrielle and flee. The family remains split over much of the next two decades, as Gabrielle raises Aaron in America, the fate of Joseph and Sarah (and Karl) becomes increasingly muddy, and the flight of Europe's Jews to the Middle East becomes its own necessity. But with records lost and history crumbling around them, is it possible for the Cohens to someday reunite? The Gold may have some elements of daring, but not so many that you probably can't guess at least some of what transpires.
Therein lies the problem: Yosowitz obviously feels passionate about this subject (his program bio talks of living with family members who survived the Holocaust), and that pours through the writing, but he and his billed co-librettist, Andrea Lepcio, are simply unable to tame a narrative this sprawling and scattered. It's barely minutes into the first act before the Nazis are already fixing matches and taking over; we've barely had time to meet anyone yet. The complex relationship between Joseph and Karl is only hinted at, but it forms the structure for too much down the line to receive such a glancing treatment. Apparently important figures, such as Sarah's family, appear and vanish almost instantly. And Gabrielle, despite being perhaps the biggest risk taker of all, has no detectable personality.
Because so much happens over such a long period of time, the characters can't be shortchangedif anything, they're more important than the historical travelogue that forms so much of the action. But scenes tumble over each other, like underprepared runners nearing the end of an ultra marathon, and are further complicated by lengthy flashbacks and somewhat cheapened by unbelievable coincidences, particularly in the second act. Yosowitz and Lepcio have created a contemporary epic, but without the clarity of purpose and just plain breathing room such a piece needs to thrive. (The whole thing runs two hours, including an intermission, but reportedly ran a full hour longer at its reading at last year's NYMF.) This is a case where less probably would be more.
Much the same is true of the score, too. Yosowitz has composed with a generally heavy hand that gives most of the numbers, regardless of content, a dark and unyielding feeling that screams "important" more than it does "right." There's little difference between the early scene-setter, "Which Man Will Be Champion?" (for the boxing matches), and the late-show anthem "Never Again"; even the love songs are tinged with fear and terror, even when threats are obscured or past. (The small band, under Jesse Lozano's direction, plays with handsome conviction.)
The moments of brightness that do appear, such as "Germany's Changing" (the requisite "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" moment) and "Remembering," an ongoing duet for the young Aaron and the girl Julie he met as a boy (they're played, impressively well, by the enthusiastic Graydon Peter Yosowitz and Stephanie Ticas), are welcome, but the overall dramatic effect is not one of development and change, but rather a mire in which each successful step is an almost unbearable struggle. Given the underlying optimism, the tone seems wrong and is not easy to embrace.
The cast, thankfully, is strong, with standouts including Davis as an excellent (if overly brooding) Joseph, Malenke emphasizing the on-edge courage of Gabriel, Ryan Speakman as a Nazi avatar, and Adam Maggio and Emily Krong finding plenty of inspiring notes as the adult Aaron and Julie. The staging, by Spiro Velpoudos, winks frequently at Les Misérables, but has the proper fluidity to keep events unfurling and the energy high. And the design is just what's needed, with a simple ringside set by Meganne George that makes smart use of a date-pocked backdrop; a fine, globe-trotting costume plot by Izzy Fields, and Joe Beumer's urgent lighting.
Everyone has come together to polish The Gold to a captivating sheen and, in many cases, make it seem like a fair amount more than it is. If this is a work that's still in desperate need of refinement and additional focus, it's nonetheless smartly conceived and thoughtfully structured with an eye toward the classics; this is one of the few musicals at NYMF this year that has actually, and completely, felt like a real musical. That's hardly nothing, but it's not enough on its own. The good news is that there's every reason to expect that Yosowitz can give this a good go: Who would know better the importance of care in shaping raw material into something newer, sleeker, and more effective and/or attractive than a plastic surgeon?