In 1978, an advert for a new musical, Bar Mitzvah Boy, proudly proclaimed that the all-singing, all-dancing show would be on the stage “for a long time”.
That prediction didn’t quite ring true, because after just 77 performances the curtains came down, with its original creators blaming the flashy, Broadway-style production for detracting from the real heart of the show. Now 40 years after it was first written, Bar Mitzvah Boy has been given a new lease of life at Highgate’s intimate Upstairs At The Gatehouse.
Originally a 1976 TV play by Jack Rosenthal, Bar Mitzvah Boy was adapted for the stage by award-winning composers, with music by Jule Styne (of Gypsy and Funny Girl fame) and lyrics by Don Black (the man behind Bond songs like Tomorrow Never Dies and Diamonds Are Forever).
There are some new additions by Black, now 77, who penned a couple of new tunes to previously unheard Jule Styne compositions. The updating of Bar Mitzvah Boy for the 21st Century isn’t just in the songs: the script has also been reworked by The Scottsboro Boys author David Thompson, and as a result it never feels dated.
The show is full of wholesome family fun, with its catchy songs bound to leave you singing its melodies for days. Although its characters are Jewish, its subject matter is not: it’s about adolescence and coming of age.
Any of us, male, female, Jewish or gentile, will identify with the unique crises we all face when being forced to grow up overnight.
The story centres, as the title suggests, around the story of a barmitzvah: that of Eliot Green, a 13-year-old boy from north London who’s decidedly nervous about his big day.
Adam Bregman, as the eponymous bar mitzvah boy Eliot, is both adorable and cheeky in his first professional role, while his on-stage parents, played by Sue Kelvin and Robert Maskell, are hilarious as his stereotypical Jewish parents.
Kelvin is seen flouncing about fretting about her son’s mop of hair while Maskell hides behind a newspaper, longingly awaiting Sunday, when the party will all be over, the shrieking will cease and he’ll be several thousand pounds poorer.
The script did occasionally veer into cheesiness, with certain scenes of Eliot struggling with his identity lacking in substance and relying on sentimentality. But though the production isn’t West End-slick, and there’s the occasional stumbling over lines, it doesn’t detract from the warm feeling of the play overall.
Its warm ambience is exactly what director Stewart Nicholls was looking to create: a play far removed from the overproduced show that it has long been suspected was its downfall. It’s decidedly not flashy, but simple, sweet and showtune-tastic.
Bar Mitzvah Boy shows until 10 April at Upstairs At The Gatehouse, Highgate Village. Tickets: 020 8340 3488, www.upstairsatthegatehouse.com. Performances also 16-17 April at the Radlett Centre. Tickets: 01923 859291, www.radlettcentre.co.uk