Feisty musical account of the founding of a golden dynasty
Five years after Sheldon Harnick and the late Jerry Bock struck gold with Fiddler on the Roof, they turned to Mayer Rothschild. Specifically the story of how he and his five sons transmuted the poverty of the ghetto into a golden future. The streamlined version of that show, premiered off-Broadway in 2015, arrives in London with American leads Robert Cuccioli and Glory Crampton as paterfamilias Mayer Rothschild and his wife and helpmeet Gutele, respectively, plus original director Jeffrey B Moss.
The chill of antisemitism that tempers the warm glow of Fiddler lowers the temperature in 18th-century Frankfurt, from the ominous opening notes of the town crier: “Jews and aliens of Frankfurt, return to your homes and be confined until morning. The ghetto is closing.”
Like Tevye, Mayer is a devoted husband and father, but his tsores stem from the oppression, confinement and exclusion that the ghetto represents. His sense of injustice propels him to challenge the powers-that-be by determining to make his fortune. And if that reinforces prejudice, as we know, the Rothschild dynasty gets the last laugh.
Sherman Yellen’s book is always absorbing and the cast play it to the hilt in Moss’s insightful production. Backed up by MD Ben van Tienen’s terrific little band (keyboard, wind and cello), they deliver with verve Harnick’s elegant lyrics and Bock’s attractively tuneful music, often a subtle hybrid of klezmer and 18th-century court music.
Cuccioli is magnificent as Mayer – handsome, eloquent, driven – his voice glorious in the Park Theatre’s intimate space. Crampton’s Gutele is the sole female protagonist though Jeanna Strand offers strong support in minor roles. This can be a strength as Crampton matches Cuccioli with her warm, sympathetic wife and mother, fighting her sons’ corner and her own; and a weakness, for she is necessarily left wringing her hands, housebound in the ghetto.
The sons are as resourceful and rebellious as their parentage promises. If Gary Trainor as Nathan, the middle son stands out, it’s because, as the son who really challenges his father and gets the prize of going to London when Mayer deploys his sons across Europe, his is the best-written role and he attacks it with exciting energy.
Richard Dempsey, Tom Giles, Kris Marc-Joseph and Stephen Webb offer superb support as the other four sons. Tony Timberlake enjoys staying just this side of caricature playing a succession of slippery princes and politicians. And David Delve is convincing as Budurus, Prince William of Hanover’s put-upon secretary, so Mayer’s wary ally.
Pam Tait’s lush, mainly monochrome period dress means the obligatory yellow stars worn by Rothschild and sons stand out, stark and shocking. Rebecca Brower’s back projections (video design Louise Rhoades-Brown) imaginatively evoke buildings, interiors and forbidding ghetto gates. An absorbing, revealing evening.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Pamela Raith
Rothschild and Sons runs until Saturday 17 February. 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 3pm (Thu & Sat only). £20-£26.50, £18.50 concs. Park Theatre, N4 3JP. www.parktheatre.co.uk