Review: The Honest, Touching Emotion of ‘Milk and Honey’ at the York
The York Theatre mounts a spare but moving concert of Jerry Herman’s first Broadway show
Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, February 6, 2017
Last season, the fine folks at Encores! at New York’s City Center presented a limited run of the 1965 musical Do I Hear a Waltz?, the sole collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim. The story concerns a middle-aged woman who goes on holiday in Italy to find love and adventure. She meets a man and falls in love, but he’s married and she has hangups, and the story ends pretty much as you would expect of a mainstream Broadway musical in the 1960s.
And now, the equally fine folks at the York Theatre are presenting Jerry’s Herman’s first Broadway musical, Milk and Honey, as part of their Musicals in Mufti series. Milk and Honey premiered on Broadway four years earlier than Do I Hear a Waltz?, but it featured pretty much the same plot, although the action here takes place in Israel.
Neither show was a major success, but having now seen both shows, I can confidently state that Milk and Honey is a far more affecting and dramatically satisfying show. Do I Hear a Waltz? is professional but flaccid. Milk and Honey, despite some flaws, is a real charmer.
Of course, comparing an Encores! presentation and a Mufti production isn’t entirely fair. Over the years, Encores! shows have gotten increasingly lavish and far less concert-like, while the Mufti series has remained true to its shoestring roots. But it’s my contention that if a show genuinely works, then it works on a bare stage, with no sets or costumes, with no frills whatsoever. And that, it turns out, is pretty much what “mufti” means.
I’m not saying that we can expect a Broadway revival of Milk and Honey soon. But Jerry Herman’s score reveals a future master of melody at the beginning of his promising career, not to mention a deft and clever lyricist just cutting his teeth. Milk and Honey features a rousing anthem in its title song, a rollicking march in “Chin Up, Ladies,” and a comic patter song, “A Hymn to Hymie.”
But it’s the ballads of Milk and Honey that really set the stage for Herman’s soaring melodies of “It Only Takes a Moment” in Hello Dolly! and “If He Walked Into my Life” in Mame. Particularly moving is “Let’s Not Waste a Moment,” with a haunting, curvaceous melodic line and simple, honest lyrics. The two central lovers, Ruth and Phil, sing to each other about the need to grab whatever joy they can while they can: “We don’t have to hear the clock remind us / That there’s more than half of life behind us.” Such heartfelt moments abound throughout the show.
As for the show’s book, librettist Don Appell crafts a sweet, intimate story, even if he peppers it with just a skosh too much hoary Jewish humor than is probably wise. The show features some jokes about arabs and the fear of violence that felt particularly dicey in today’s political environment.
The book is marred by some character inconsistency with Phil’s daughter, who is married to an Israeli farmer, and who seems to change on a dime with respect to both her commitment to her husband’s work and her support for her father’s budding romance. What’s more, the plot complications and resolutions in the show reflect a somewhat quaint, prudish, middle-class sensibility, which is probably understandable since this is taking place, and was written, in 1961.
A major contributor to the emotional impact of the show is the cast of New York professionals, including operatic baritone Mark Delavan as Phil, with a rich, resonant voice and impressively clear high notes. The lovely Anne Runolfsson — with an expressive, light soprano — gives Ruth both strength and vulnerability. These two were especially genuine and intense in their final scenes together.
In the supporting cast, both Perry Sherman as David and Jacob Heimer as Adi shine with dramatic verve, vocal clarity, and compelling moments of both warm humor and emotional intensity. Stealing every scene she’s in is the delightful Alix Korey, late of the most recent Fiddler on the Roof revival. Korey brings impeccable comic timing to the role originated by Yiddish theater legend, Mollly Picon. As delightful as Korey was, I couldn’t help wishing I was old enough to have seen Picon create the role. Her indelible personality suffuses every line of the role.
The York Theatre’s Musicals in Mufti series continues February 11 through 19th with Berlin to Broadway With Kurt Weill, and from February 25th through March 5th with Jerry Herman’s Dear World, starring Tony-winner Tyne Daly in the role originated by Angela Lansbury.
Milk and Honey was presented by the York Theatre / Musicals in Mufti series on January 28 – February 5, 2017. Book by Don Appell; music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Directed by Michael Unger. Cast: Mark Delavan (Phil Arkin), Alix Korey (Clara Weiss), Anne Runolfsson (Ruth Stein), Ari Axelrod (Ensemble), Abby Goldfarb (Zipporah), Jacob Heimer (Adi), and Jessica Fontana (Barbara), Joy Hermalyn (Mrs. Perlman), Joanne Lessner (Mrs. Segal), John Little (Mr. Horowitz), Marcy DeGonge Manfredi (Mrs. Kessler), and Perry Sherman (David).
Cover: (l. to r.) Mark Delavan, Anne Runolfsson, Alix Korey; photo: Ben Strothmann