Jewish Hollywood – Aria Entertainment at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

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In times like these – and it seems like it’s getting more like “times like these” by the day – an evening of great music and escapist entertainment seems like just the thing. What did I know about the impact of Jews on Hollywood, or the presence of Jewish culture in American movies? Honestly, nothing, but I was looking forward to learning. I had high hopes for my return to Upstairs at the Gatehouse and I was not disappointed.

The show is done as a bit of a history lesson, with songs generously leavened in (not always in historical order) and lots of breaks for showbiz fun. It is a four hander, two women and two men (one pair twenties-ish – Mackenzie Mellen and Jack Reitman – and the other in the prime of middle age – Sue Kelvin and Howard Samuels), with a generously sized band that included a person who played flute (I think!), clarinet, and possibly saxophone. The reeds gave a more klezmer-y sound to the ensemble than the usual house band – and were perfect for the show.

We started with the birth of Hollywood – well, the birth of cinema in America, really! Jewish immigrants, very recently arrived escaping European pogroms and with names frequently sanitized by Ellis Island authorities, started in the business right away, even before there were movies (kinetoscopes, mutoscopes, etc, in penny arcades) in New York, which ws the original home of America’s film industry. It was a good business to get into if you were a nobody from nowhere as the mass entertainment industry was considered low class and thus had a lower barrier to entry.

Despite working quickly up to the point of owning many of the Hollywood studios (where the industry settled due to the ease of filming under sunnier skies), the studio owners didn’t pursue Jewish themes, although there was a notable exception for The Jazz Singer, the breakthrough talkie about a young man struggling between his father’s dream for him to take up his position as the cantor for their synagogue and his wish for a Broadway career that raked in the dough. This was (shock!) the last Jewish themed Hollywood movie for decades …. until Exodus became a best seller (then a blockbuster movie, with Paul Newman as the star) … paving the way for people to be themselves, to be Jewish, and to be stars.

Photo credit: Louis Burgess

There’s a lot more story to be told, but let’s skip that and get to the fun! In addition to comical retellings of the two pivotal movies above (no blackface, thank God), the show features just buckets of great tunes, and has a cast that knows how to belt them. Kelvin was great at recreating that great star Sophie Tucker (“My Yiddische Momme”) as well as the very modern Midler, while Samuels was perfect at clowning as well as delivering tunes. The cast threw themselves into “Tradition” (<I>Fiddler on the Roof</I>) just as much as “God Bless America” (although I questioned Irving Berlin being called a jingoist – he was a patriot, which is different) and the very troubling “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and “Springtime for Hitler.” It covered a very wide range of American history but with such great songs to illustrate the stories, it, unsurprisingly, never got dull!

For me, though, the highlight of the evening was a brief turn given by Mackenzie Mellen performing “Don’t Rain on my Parade” – it was so heartfelt and vibrant it seemed for a moment the windows might just burst off the building to let her song radiate through the entire neighborhood – wow! Her bio was the shortest in the program but I feel that with her star power she’ll be crossing my path many times again.

(Jewish Hollywood continues at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until April 17th, 2022. This review is for a show that took place on March 17th.)

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One Response to “Jewish Hollywood – Aria Entertainment at Upstairs at the Gatehouse”

  1. John K987 (@JohnK987) Says:

    Thanks for the review. Never heard of the Gatehouse but am now planning to book this on my trip to the UK! Have enjoyed your reviews and theatre/dining recommendations for years! Because of you, I discovered Battersea Pie Station (visit every trip), Flatiron, Galileo’s Locanda Toscana (sadly replaced by Assaggetti), Small & Beautiful (so darn good!). Appreciate you taking the time to write so much!

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