The Wick Theatre marks the opening of its ninth season with an admirable rendition of Milk and Honey, a 1961 musical that’s significant for a variety of reasons.
In this show, his first effort for Broadway, then-28-year-old composer/lyricist Jerry Herman struck theatrical gold with a tale of six lonely American widows on a visit to Israel, all bearing high hopes of meeting new husbands.
Based on a book by Don Appell, the tuneful tale, using the young country’s fight for recognition as an independent nation for background, struck a responsive chord among theatergoers, as did the lively score which includes a variety of crowd-pleasing numbers. In fact, audiences will likely find the music more entertaining and moving than the plot — a series of love yarns that break little new ground.
The title comes from the Biblical reference to Israel as ‘the promised land,” also known as “the land of milk and honey.”
Laura Turnbull and Avi Hoffman in “Milk and Honey” at the Wick Theatre in Boca Raton. (Photo by Amy Pasquantonio)
The Wick’s rendition of the five-time Tony Award-nominated production that runs through Nov. 6 brings a bevy of familiar actors and dancers to the stage that sports some effective settings and era-specific costumes, thanks to hard-working backstage folks, deft lighting and set designers and computer-generated backgrounds depicting Israel in its infancy, when Tel Aviv was just finding its budding, citified roots and the Negev was still harsh and forbidding.
Herman’s music track – fashioned for the Wick stage by much-in-demand musician and arranger Phil Hinton — includes such songs as “Shalom,” “There’s No Reason in the World,” the humorously touching anthem, “Chin up, Ladies” and the buoyant title song.
In this story of the universal quest for love and companionship, an American tourist named Ruth (Laura Turnbull) meets retired Baltimore builder Phil (Avi Hoffman). They are immediately attracted to each other, but Phil, who has long been separated from his wife, is still married – and happens to be in Israel to visit his daughter.
Elliot Mahon and Whitney Grace in “Milk and Honey” at the Wick Theatre in Boca Raton. (Photo by Amy Pasquantonio)
As Phil and Ruth become an item, they must work through various circumstances and probe their minds and hearts to find the right answers.
Matters between them become complicated when Phil’s daughter, Barbara (Whitney Grace) gets involved. As dad starts making plans to build a home in the Israeli desert for him and Ruth, Barbara asks if his lover knows about Phil’s marital status. Turns out he hasn’t told her yet – an embarrassing omission. That not only upsets his daughter, who feels Ruth would feel uncomfortable living with a man who’s already hitched, but it jeopardizes her own marriage to a loving Israeli-born farmer, David (Elliot Mahon). The issue of Barbara’s desire to return to Baltimore versus David’s intense yearning to work the farm and grow old along with his homeland often clash.
The finale, which lacks specificity, takes a back seat to a couple of interesting subplots that add songs and new turns to the main story. Both asides are well worth the audience’s attention.
Seasoned performer Irene Adjan, who could easily steal the stage as Clara, the most forthright and outspoken member of the widow troupe, accidentally meets Sol Horowitz (Anthony Gruppuso), a widowed jeweler from Jerusalem, and they promptly show a profound mutual interest. Alone, Clara seeks her late husband’s permission to remarry if Sol proposes (“Hymn to Hymie”).
Jonathan Eisele and Ravit Allen, center, in a scene from “Milk and Honey” at the Wick Theatre in Boca Raton. (Photo by Amy Pasquantonio)
Adjan brings to all her scenes a zest that rivals that of Molly Picon, the iconic actress who made that selfsame character legendary in the original Broadway production.
Another vital scene focuses on the talents of Jonathan Eisele as Adi and Ravit Allen as Zipporah, who are planning a wedding but seem to fight over everything — including the ceremony. Eisele, perhaps best known as a dancer, brings dynamic energy to both his acting and footwork and excels as a vocalist when he sings the title song in Act II.
Allen delivers a powerful performance, one that appears to liken her pregnancy to the birth of a new nation.
Hoffman and Turnbull – husband and wife in real life — are exceptional selections for lead performers. Hoffman, who specializes in Jewish culture and Yiddish theater, sold out the Wick Theatre with his summer event, Yiddish Tangos. He is also known for his long-running Too Jewish trilogy seen by millions on PBS and in venues around the world.
Turnbull has performed on and off Broadway, took part in several national tours and has been seen on TV, in films and at a variety of local theater.
The roster of American widows in Milk and Honey is fleshed out by an extraordinary group of well-known actresses: Colleen Pagano, Denise DeMars, Heather Simsay, Elizabeth Dimon and Patti Gardner.
“The Widows” in a scene from “Milk and Honey” at the Wick Theatre in Boca Raton. (Photo by Amy Pasquantonio)