Kimber Road: A Serious Musical Comedy

Kimber Road is a spirited new satire on synagogue life and star [of-David]-crossed lovers in America and the Old Country by retired Cantor Harold Lerner.
Kimber Road opens in flashback mode in 1980, as key characters Rosa Leah and her papa, Cantor Moishele Bratzker, recall events of 40 years earlier, when Rosa becomes smitten with David, the son of a rival religious leader, Reb Sholom Finkelman. With the knowing persistence of the tough, magical matchmaker, Chaye Sur'l, the two opposite-family scions are with effort affianced. Not so fast: The arduous engagement is torpedoed almost instantaneously by a dispute between the two religious factions before a wedding can transpire. From there, the dispute flares to engulf the community, when the full-blown feud is confronted with an unexpected common enemy. Each congregant must sort out his reasons for where he or she stands.

Playwright and lyricist Cantor Lerner perfected his understanding of the rhythms and vaulting melodies of Jewish cantellation in 60 years of singing in and creating soaring music for synagogues in upstate New York. Themes addressed in the satirical musical offering–and the threats such modern-day concerns pose to the survival of the Jewish people, particularly in an environment defined by contemporary cultural assaults, generational cross-currents, and ubiquitous doubt–find their robust and pleasing outlet in the play. The large issues addressed through zesty humor and delicately restructured liturgical compositions by cantorial greats of the past, good-natured chiding, and acutely observed Yiddische zeitgeist provide an insider's peek at life in a just-yesterday bygone era. These provide meaty insights into some of the strains that cleave our generations today.

Although the theme of disharmony is necessarily at the centre of these conflicted relationships, Lerner and director Klavan deviate slightly from the iconic originals to create an opposition between the modern man or woman who "loves love" and the hard-fought images and values of a religiously and ideologically strict ancien regime. With the character of the parents giving way to the modernity of their offspring in the goldene medina, America, the invocations and definitions of the past fuse with the choral invocations of the opposing synagogue members' activity, and brushes over the aesthetic of the poignant musical satire as a whole, with its own repeated dramatic, plaintive and narrative motifs of loss and redemption. Klavan casts a dozen talented actors and musicians in roles that give each a chance to shine musically and, often, dramatically.
Serviceable plays about the workings of faith and its adherents are noticeably sparse. Those that manage to dramatize intergenerational disputes without losing the cohering thread are indeed smaller still.

As entertaining as is the plight of the youngsters who seek to be with those they choose, the true target audience is parents and adults who forget that under the temporary rivalries of place or community group, it is incumbent upon grown-ups to strive for understanding of the Other, even in one's particular religious stratosphere; to listen with open hearts to those we might dismiss or impugn for less-than-exalted reasons. Kimber Road is a flash we need to heed: Though surely society is partially to 'blame' for the occasional dysfunctions of our various groups, the miraculous effort of love and open-heartedness can heal the fissures that crop up and threaten to calcify our interactions.

Though the characters do not have extensive speeches on the stage, since the staged-reading production is a swift 90 minutes, they all come across as fully dimensional, without artifice or separation from people we all know. Lerner manages to sketch a character in a few lines of potent dialogue, and extend that reality with lilting music that combines the best of Old Country nigunim, cantorial liturgies, with a satisfying awareness of Broadway and contemporary music. And for his part, the director marshals the elements of Jewish weltschmerz, poignancy, wringing Polish pathos, Russian recognition and Talmudic tradition out of the script and tapestried music.

A wee caveat is that the name of this tuneful satire does not immediately convey to a prospective audience what delights are to come. I would have preferred a name with more gemutliche resonance to tease the theatre-goer with what joyfulness, humor and perceived story lies ahead. But with inspired and inspiring lyrics, melodies that stay with one and, thanks to a cast that is top-notch and professional, and an author with so many years of musical expertise under his belt, Kimber Road offers at once a resurrection and construction of beloved sounds and imminent sense that beguiles an audience, even in a reading. With a full-bore staged piece, this would be a complementary sidecar addendum to the likes of a Fiddler or even a folksy, re-purposed Oklahoma!





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