Two new musicals that opened across town from each other last weekend provide an answer — a rebuff, really — to the idea that stories are at their best when they offer new insights.
New insights are gleefully lacking in When You're in Love, the Whole World Is Jewish, based on Bob Booker and George Foster's 1965 album You Don't Have to Be Jewish and its follow-up, When You're in Love, the Whole World Is Jewish. The current homage is a musical revue playing, appropriately, on Fairfax Avenue at the Greenway Court Theater.
There's a similarly willful, winking disregard for anything resembling a novel twist or turn in Bill Robertson, Tom Sage and Cliff Wagner's new musical, Paradise: A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy, at Santa Monica's Ruskin Group Theatre. Paradise trafficks in stereotypes of the people in a poor coal-mining town, the arrival of an evangelical Christian minister and the related arrival of Hollywood film crew aiming to produce a reality TV entertainment from the foibles and woes of the townsfolk.
Both offerings are delightful — though When You're in Love is fitfully so — and that delight stems from their reliance on jokes that exaggerate and reinforce commonly held beliefs.
When You're in Love comes to us via Booker and Foster's very funny radio sketches, themselves derived from Borscht Belt comedy. (In the current rendition, there's added material by Danny Gold, Billy Riback and director Jason Alexander.)
The premise here is a fellow (Jay Brian Winnick) bringing his Catholic fiancee (Rena Strober) home to the family, where she's greeted and treated to a two-hour musical-comedy history of Judaism via these sketches and the songs that accompany them.
Though the revue sinks in places from the weight of overplaying simple jokes, it constantly resurfaces and even takes flight, thanks to the quality of the ensemble (which also includes Barry Gordon, Michael Pasternak, Ellen Ratner and Robert Shampain) and the live band (Leo Chelyapov, John Graves, TJ Troy, Terry Wollman and keyboardist/conductor/vocalist Deborah Hurwitz).
But the essence of the humor lies in the rhythms, long-familiar cadences you'll find in the plays of Neil Simon and the movies of Woody Allen. As fine as the actors here may be, you'll get just as much joy, perhaps more, from closing your eyes and listening to the classically Jewish repartee. Regardless of your background or faith, you're simply not awake if the sheer musicality of the lines doesn't bring a smile to your face.
In one sketch, "The Reading of the Will," an attorney languorously reads to the gathered relatives "the last will and testament of our dear friend and relative, Samuel B. Cohen."
And so it goes: "To my beautiful boy Sheldon ... my firstborn ... the best dentist in the United States ... I bequeath tax-free $1 million."
The skit's heart lies in the reactions: "Wonderful." "Isn't that magnificent." "Good luck, Sheldon."
The attorney continues: "To my beautiful daughter Jayne, with a 'y,' who got a scholarship to Hunter College, who for a long time has been a little too particular or she'd be married by now ..."
Jayne also lands a tax-free $1 million.
"Such a generous man." "Isn't that beauoootiful." "Mazel tov."
"And to my lovely wife, Miriam, I give with pleasure everything that's not in her name already." This includes "the Picasso from the back of the store."
"What a marvelous husband." "An angel, not a man, an angel." Then, after a pause, comes a third voice, a gruff-male voice intoning a kind of refrain: "The Picasso from the back of the store."
The main joke is coming and I'm not giving it away. But the sheer rhythm of the setup is ethnic, musical comedy.
The show's drawback is similar to the traps when adapting the works of wry songsters like Randy Newman, as has been attempted by La Jolla Playhouse, South Coast Repertory and Center Theatre Group. The essence of the source material comes from the pictures that the sounds and the words conjure in the mind. Theater risks depriving audiences of that experience by showing too much and thereby sabotaging those subtle explosions of wit that come from the audience making a connection from the words.
Accompanying the sketches with song and atmosphere provides considerable joy, for which director Alexander deserves credit. But too often, by pushing punch lines and overstating the obvious, the director giveth and the director taketh away.
There's a top-tier ensemble and bluegrass band (The Old #7) in Paradise, a new work that rolls along the well-worn trails of a town in trouble and some dubious saviors.
Is newly arrived evangelical minister Rev. John Cyrus Mountain (a perfectly calibrated performance by Jonathan Root) out to Tartuffe the locals, such as crusty Old Man Johnson (Robert Craighead), and dirt-filthy loon Cyndi (Kristal Lynn Lockyer), whose father and brother "are the same guy" and whose claim to fame is cross-breeding chickens with pigs for a food source called "pickens"? Rev. Mountain has a reformed stripper in tow named Chastity (naturally), who's beautifully rendered by Nina Brissey. Mountain has plans for a megachurch (naturally) to be financed by a reality TV show filmed by a crew from Hollywood (Marie Francoise Theodor and Michael Rubenstone), aiming to cash in on the townsfolks' troubles.
The local mayor (Jason Rowland) and his adult son (Elijah Rock) dress in identical suit and tie. The mayor is white. His son is black. Two-thirds through the play, the son finally asks his dad why.
Can cameraman Pete (Rubenstone) woo savvy store owner Louanne Knight (Rachel Noll) in order to advance his movie company's plans?
This is a musical about everything we ever knew or imagined concerning exploitation versus core values. Hollywood is evil (naturally). And the entire show is a charm-fest under Dan Bonnell's unified direction.
It's an ever-so-silly outing, best illustrated by Chastity's mocking inspirational, "Jesus Is Deep Inside Me," which she performs while cavorting around a post, recalling her days working the stripper pole. The song's title is followed by the refrain, "and he ain't falling out."
There are also some tender ballads, such as "Miss You," a waltz sung by Louanne remembering her late mother, and "Same Old Me," a duet between Peter and Louanne.
When You're in Love and Paradise each celebrate their respective worlds, buoyed by music and dance. In our corner of history, as we're rocked so violently on the seas of politics and cultural and technological change, musicals like these are theater's answer to a life raft. Rather than urging what we ought to be, or where we ought to go, they offer instead a refuge and a reminder of who we are and where we come from. There's no small comfort in that.
WHEN YOU'RE IN LOVE, THE WHOLE WORLD IS JEWISH | A musical revue based on the comedy albums by Bob Booker & George Foster, with additional material by Jason Alexander, Danny Gold and Billy Riback | Greenway Court Theater, 544 N. Fairfax Ave. | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through March 10 | (323) 655-7679 | worldisjewishtheplay.com
PARADISE: A DIVINE BLUEGRASS MUSICAL COMEDY | Music and book by Bill Robertson, Tom Sage and Cliff Wagner | Presented by Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Drive, Santa Monica | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 30 | (310) 397-3244 | ruskingrouptheatre.com