Shticks and Psalms

Songs of Paradise mixes vaudeville, the Borscht Belt, and the Bible to hilarious effect

When Abraham sings a rock number about his revived sexuality ("This Old Broom Will Shoot"), he works with a broom that turns into a gun -- which is painted like an American flag. He also wears one on his head as a bandanna. Is there an intentional connection between the United States, sex, guns, rock 'n' roll, and an armed Jewry? Or is he just referencing Bruce Springsteen? And when three angels come to Abraham to announce that he will be the father of a great nation, why do they have British and broadly American accents? Are we talking about Abraham or Ben Gurion, ancient Israel or the modern version? Such parsing of possible symbols may seem absurd, but in a show that makes meticulous use of the slightest topical reference, it's hard to distinguish when one reference has a point and another does not.

Still, the show's intent is more visceral than ideological. Good thing, since the entire story pretty much comes to a pointless halt in the second half. As with its source material, all these stories are in themselves entertaining and perhaps instructive, but they don't really hang together as a whole. In the finale, Hoffman, in an ironic gesture of blasphemous hubris, appears as God and comments that his book has been a bestseller for more than 5000 years. Maybe so, but he still could have used some editorial help and come up with a punchier ending. Thus, from a literary point of view, it's entirely understandable that when the Christians came up with a rewrite, they provided a big finish.

Hoffman and company bring superior performance gifts. Hoffman has impeccable comic timing and a great ease on stage. All can belt out a song and know how to wring laughs from their vaudevillian routines. Musical director Michael Larsen is somewhat hampered by the limits of his three-piece, on-stage ensemble and a rather routine score that seems more intent on echoing previous Bible-based shows than in exploring an identity of its own. Barbara Flaten turns in good work, especially with Hagar's dance, a memorable sequence. Bennett's scene designs are a delight. Using a traditional vaudeville stage frame (replete with "ads" for Noah's Animal Crackers and Burning Bush Heating Oil), Bennett brings in sliding flats and scrims to create a cartoonish, whimsical Paradise. He's backed by Salzman's wild light scheme, featuring psychedelic effects and some candy-hued tones. Estela Vrancovich's costumes are a delight, whimsical and inventive.

I feel a song coming on: Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar the huggable
I feel a song coming on: Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar the huggable

Details

Directed, translated, and adapted by Avi Hoffman. Book/additional lyrics by Miriam Hoffman and Rena Borow; lyrics by Itzik Manger; music by Rosalie Gerut. Presented by the Caldwell Theatre Company. Call 561-241-7432, 800-930-6400.
7873 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton

Hoffman and company should do well at the Caldwell, and you would do well to catch them while you can. The show is headed for off-Broadway sometime next year for what I anticipate will be a long and happy run. Amen to that.

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