Friday, January 23, 2009

Theater review: ‘Still Jewish After All These Years’ is a real Tales of Hoffman

Avi Hoffman scores in
Still Jewish After All These Years!
A Life in the Theatre

By Hap Erstein

Avi Hoffman does not literally drag a trunk onstage, but for almost two hours the producing artistic director of The New Vista Theatre Company dips into a metaphorical trunk, sifting nostalgically through the milestones of his five decades in show business.

Because such an exercise needs a title, he calls his latest one-man revue Still Jewish After All These Years! A Life in the Theatre. He might as well have called it Too Jewish? 3.0, for it is the third in a trilogy of showcases of his considerable talents, a knock-off of the ethnic identity act that turned him into a fixture on public television.

Essentially an autobiographical tour through his stage credits with segments recycled from his earlier shows, the rambling evening could certainly use the outside eye of a director and editor. Still, Hoffman’s ingratiating personality manages to get him past the show’s weak patches.

Still Jewish was never supposed to be part of New Vista’s season. It is a hasty fill-in for a much anticipated home-grown mounting of The Producers, Mel Brooks’ record-breaking Tony Award-winning comic musical, which had to be scrubbed when corporate and private donations suddenly evaporated. The idea of Hoffman playing unscrupulous con man Max Bialystock is very appealing, but that will have to wait for a more supportive economic climate.

Hoffman has always been the main audience draw for his theater, yet few of his fans know much about his up-and-down, successes-and-setbacks professional history. The Bronx-born son of Holocaust survivors, Hoffman grew up speaking Yiddish and at the age of 4 he starred in his first stage vehicle, an ethnic musical his mother wrote for him. He moved up to the leading role of Tevye the dairyman in a children’s production of Fiddler on the Roof at 8, and has mined a rich vein of Jewish stage works ever since.

Although he has beaten the odds by making his living in the theater, a theme that runs throughout Still Jewish is his assertion that he should be more famous than he is. As a youngster, he was cast in a film starring and directed by Richard Harris, a potential big break that Hoffman now deems “one of the 10 worst movies of all time.”

As a young man, he appeared in a play called The Blacksmith’s Daughter as an 80-year-old bookseller and insists that he was instrumental in killing off the Yiddish theater. Soon though, he got star billing in a musical called The Rise of David Levinsky, a career-maker if ever there was one, only to see it close after a month.

Relying on Jewish vehicles eventually got Hoffman typecast into a corner, leaving him unemployed, until a producer advised him to write a show for himself. That became Too Jewish?, an off-Broadway hit that brought him to South Florida in 1996 and that he continues to perform around the country. Neither of his sequels comes close to that more focused first show, but with the goodwill he has amassed, chances are he can now add Still Jewish to his regular repertoire.

Those who know his other one-man shows will recognize Hoffman’s Menasha Skulnik and Jackie Mason impersonations, his specialty lyrics to the Yiddish music hall standard, Romania, Romania, and the inevitable Fiddler on the Roof medley. His new show’s title is a take-off on Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years, which prompts a musical salute to Jewish rock troubadours from Simon to Bob Dylan to Billy Joel.

Late in his show, Hoffman arrives at the emotional high point of the evening, a tribute to his father that culminates in a number from the Richard Maltby-David Shire revue Closer Than Ever called If I Sing. It might have made an effective lump-in-the-throat finale, but the show continues on its meandering way, including a frank mention of the company’s finances and a blatant appeal for donations.

The implication is that there may be no fourth season for New Vista unless its fortunes improve. That would be a serious loss for the area’s theater community, but as Still Jewish After All These Years makes evident, Hoffman knows a few things about survival.

STILL JEWISH AFTER ALL THESE YEARS!, A LIFE IN THE THEATRE, New Vista Theatre Company, West Boca High School, 12811 Glades Road, Boca Raton. Through Feb. 8. Tickets: $32-$40. Call: (888) 284-4633.


Gary Waldman said...

"Still Jewish... was never supposed to be part of New Vista’s season. It is a hasty fill-in for a much anticipated home-grown mounting of The Producers, Mel Brooks’ record-breaking Tony Award-winning comic musical, which had to be scrubbed when corporate and private donations suddenly evaporated." [sic]

same author, a few years earlier...

The Atlantis Playhouse slunk away in the night: After its most successful production, The Life, the Atlantis suddenly closed its doors, leaving subscribers and ticket holders grumbling. [sic]

Your words exactly, Hap. How odd. When hard working businessmen make the RIGHT decision to close (over a month+ long period, hardly overnight) when they discover that their overhead is higher than their sales income* (last I heard, this was the USA, a free market economy, a "customer is always right" society) then they suddenly close their doors and "slink" into the night.

Oh, and you forgot to say... "took care of their customers instead of insulting them!"

So, then. I assume, as I always have, that every artist, aside from myself of course, is entitled to FREE money from taxpayers to do whatever they want. If they actually try to market and "sell" their "art," then they are somehow doing something wrong.

Why bother reviewing theater for the pennies it pays, Hap? YOU COULD WORK ON WALL STREET!!! You have the perfect mentality.

By the way, we're still waiting, almost five years now, for a list of those disgruntled customers who were supposedly never given refunds. Watch what you print and/or post, Hap. You should know full well by now that I have it all on paper. Every customer was refunded immediately (aside from the small handful that slipped through the cracks and had to make a call or two until their refund was processed).

What a MISTAKE! Instead of giving back that HUGE amount of money, I should have kept it for myself, hung up a backdrop I had in the closet from an old show, sang some songs I already knew ALL BY MYSELF so I had no payroll to speak of, and told some stories about how pathetic I am to customers that PAID to see a historic Tony Award-winning Broadway Musical!

I am so DUMB!

No wonder the regional theater business is dead in the water down here! Its mentality SUCKS!

Art Morab said...

I saw the life but never saw Waldman's follow up productions. But I did get ALL my money refunded. I know plenty of people who have lost their money to Hoffman and been offered this pathetic little show instead of the blockbuster they paid for.
I've seen many of Hap's reviews and I've learned, over the years, to take everything he says with a pinch of salt.
What is your mission, Hap? To destroy local theater completely?
And as for the great, the high and mighty Avi Hoffman, I think you are a disgrace to local theater. Pay the people their money back. It's all paid to you on credit cards these days so you can refund direct from the bank. It just means that you and your company will have to carry the bad debt instead of your customers. But I guess you don't want to have to give up your lush lifestyle, do you?

Gary Waldman said...

Aah. So until the next self-serving "artist" posts to this site, here lies the PRECISE state of regional theater in south Florida. How long will it last? I'm printing it right now, for finally, just for this short while, this page speaks THE TRUTH.