Writer-lyricist Sonia Levitin’s musical (written with composer Kevin Anderson) about the exodus of Ethiopian Jews to Israel is a work with so much heart, it seems almost churlish to find fault with director Donald McKayle’s halting and at times overearnest staging. The play tells the story of a tribe of African Jews living a hard life in the mountains of Ethiopia for the past 2,000 years. The first scene, in which a pair of elderly African “yentas” meet to debate a possible engagement, is hysterical. After a chance meeting with a pair of American Jewish tourists, beautiful village maiden Desta (Terry Norman), her older brother, Joas (Jermel Nakia), and their younger sister, Almaz (Marcella Lewis), decide to make the journey across the border to claim Israeli citizenship as part of the “Law of Return.” Along the way, they’re forced to heart-rending sacrifices. The topic of the evacuation of the Ethiopian Jews makes for intrinsically engrossing subject matter. Sadly, though, Levitin’s book could use a severe pruning to cut a number of extraneous incidents, while McKayle’s ponderous blocking has the performers standing around doing nothing for extended sequences. Still, scattered amid flatly presented patches are some vibrant musical numbers that amalgamate The Lion King and Fiddler on the Roof in an ambitiously subtle mix of African rhythm and Hebrew melodies. In her character’s farewell to her native village, Norman’s “How Can I Say Goodbye” is quite powerful. Other wonderful singing turns come from Nakia’s Joas, and also from Paula Bellamy-Franklin, playing an old village grandmother who makes the long journey.
Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 7 p.m. Starts: June 5. Continues through July 20, 2008

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