Review: That’s Jewish Entertainment ★★★ – Much to discover and enjoy in a canter from cantor to cabaret

There was a terrific compilation movie that took the title of much-loved song That’s Entertainment (written by Jewish duo Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz for the MGM film The Band Wagon) to celebrate the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio’s prodigious output; celebrating songs by Jewish composers and lyricists written for films produced by a studio founded and run by the eponymous Jewish entertainment moguls. Producer Katy Lipson proves her love and knowledge of “the magic of the musical” by touring her show The MGM Story this February. So in a way That’s Jewish Entertainment is a given, but there’s still so much to discover and enjoy as four talented performers and a four-strong band give their all to entertaining Yiddish style and tracing the trajectory of Jewish entertainment from shtetl to showbiz.

Kate Golledge directs, starring gals Joanna Lee (the petite brunette one) and Emma Odell (the tall blonde one) and guys Matthew Barrow (the bearded one) and David McKechnie (the smooth one). They dress as individuals (there’s no designer credit, but lighting designer Ben M Rogers and programmer Toby Darvill provide a glitzy backdrop of twinkling lights), but their powerful voices blend beautifully (musical director Charlie Ingles, arranger Andy Collyer) and they move as one (choreography Adam Scown). And just when you think McKechnie has nailed Groucho Marx, Barrow takes over with the next quip. Similarly both Odell and Lee get to give their Sophie Tucker at different stages of the red hot mamma’s long career.

Opening with a perky new title number of his own, writer Chris Burgess traces the rise and rise of Jewish entertainers on stage and screen and behind the scenes pulling the strings – both creative and financial – from those first valiant 19th-century arrivals from the shtetl to the second migration to Hollywood and through two world wars. He’s mindful of the emotional baggage and the legacy of the music of the old country; and the outside events and forces buffeting the Jewish community. The Holocaust looms largest, of course. Burgess includes the powerful song of the defiant Jewish partisans The Final Road in his own excellent translation, and explores the endemic antisemitism in the USA that means so many Jews keep a low profile, even in showbiz, often deploring the overtly Jewish shtick of Jackie Mason and even Mel Brooks.

The best nuggets are the gallop through the schmaltzy plot of The Jazz Singer (his was just one of the mamas behind all those papas) and the heart and soul in all those Yiddish gems contrasting with the glitz. Whether you are Jewish or not, it would be hard not find something to entertain you here.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Pamela Raith

That’s Jewish Entertainment runs until Saturday 11 March in London and on Sunday 12 March in Hertfordshire. Details below:

London: 7.30pm (Tue-Sat), 4pm (Sun only), 3pm (25 Feb, 4 & 11 Mar only). £18-£22, £16-£20 concs. Upstairs at the Gatehouse, N6 4BD. 020 8340 3488. www.upstairsatthegatehouse.com

Hertfordshire: 7.30pm & 3.30pm. £20. Radlett Centre, WD7 8HL. 01923 859291. www.radlettcentre.co.uk

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