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Chicken Soup for the Stage

You don't write. You don't call. The predictable but winnable women of Mamaleh! are worried sick about you.

Golden Girls: As a widow and a divorcée, Joan Ashwell (standing) and Susan Porter sing, joke, and kvetch about their friendship in the feel-good musical Mamahleh!

By John Barry | Posted 4/23/2003


Mitchell Uscher and Roy Singer

So Mamaleh! is "a musical for everyone"? Whatever they might say on the program, it isn't about everyone. Everyone's invited, and most people will enjoy it, but those who have been living their lives cast out on the seas of shallow, temporary friendships are just going to have to form their own damn canasta circle. Spotlighters' portrait of five kvetching, card-playing Jewish mothers reminds us that the best friendships do grow on trees, and those trees have roots. And in the culture of mass assimilation, it may remind us why people actually used to spend time with their own kind.

Mitchell Uscher probably didn't waste too many brain cells coming up with the characters. The group of "little mothers" that makes up Mamaleh! starts as a predictable pastiche of New Yawk Jewish women stretching across the generational spectrum. We get the young mother, the jaded divorcée, the grandmother, the lonely widow, and the great-grandmother. The subjects of their conversations come as no surprise, either: bat mitzvah girls, Bryant Avenue, holidays in the Catskills, relatives, cooking, nose jobs, and men.

All five mamalehs are reaching turning points in their lives, which gives them an opportunity to reminisce and reflect. In other words, they're all growing older. That means some are having strokes, moving to Florida, getting boob-lifts, finding houses for the kids. But that isn't what really drives the plot, if you want to call it that. The musical is made up of about an hour and a half of sketches involving lunches, hairdressing, days at the beach, and all the rest. Uscher's songs are insulated with warmth and toastiness. But there are moments of introspection ("Grandma's Hands") and pathos ("It's No Crime to Be Lonely"). Audience members are asked to turn off their senses of irony. You're laughing with them, not at them.

As Sonya, Joan Ashwell plays an elder matriarch who dishes out heaping piles of advice and dumplings, both usually more than requested. In the song "Grandma's Hands," she is beginning to realize that she's a last link with the Old World of her own grandmother. For her, that's a mixed blessing: She may be the queen of the roost, but she missed out on many of the opportunities that her younger friends have.

Meanwhile, Maddy (Susan Porter) is a man-hunting divorcée who wanders the beaches equipped with binoculars, looking for circumcised prospects. She's unlucky in love but cheerfully resolute. As Sonya, Joan Corcoran plays the young mother, buffeted and comforted by two generations of advice. But her youth doesn't leave her low on the totem pole; it just means that more people are around to tell her what to do. Frieda (Maribeth Eckenrode) is heading into later middle age; she seems to be the middle woman here. And Jenny (Joan Ashwell) is a quieter presence, recently bereft, being pushed by her friends to look for a new husband.

None of this is going to leave you white-knuckled on the edge of your seat. There's a vague apprehension that this small circle won't remain unbroken forever, and a generalized regret that they don't make friendships like these anymore. Uscher avoids trying to squeeze too much pathos out of this, though. Times change. That doesn't mean you can't play bridge over the telephone.

The musical's virtue, though, isn't in the comedy (pretty much run-of-the-mill Catskills stand-up stuff), or in the plot (none that I could see), but in the ability of five chattering, gossiping, card-playing, singing women to turn into a delightfully rounded and thoroughly unpretentious group of characters bonded by a remarkable friendship. The most effective feature is a sort of bubbly empathy; by the end, the audience truly feels that it's been let into this circle of friends, which may be why they're all invited to join in the reprise.

Standouts include a delightful performance by Joan Corcoran, who takes up the role of bellhop, waitress, and a high-octane great-grandmother. There are some great sketches, the best probably being when Frieda and Maddy drive their waitress nuts by following their golden rule: Never order what's on the menu. But individual skits and some of the best singing would go for naught if you weren't sure this ensemble was having fun together. In musicals like this, take it or leave it, group chemistry is everything, and the Spotlighters crew has all the necessary ingredients.

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