In “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” a new musical, with score by Laura I. Kramer, lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz and Cheryl Stern, and book by Schwartz, Stern, Kramer, and Jerry James, after Lesléa Newman’s short story of the same name, playing at the Acorn Theatre, through May 13, parents—and grandparents—and parent-figures and children and offspring-figures have issues, about love and death, secretiveness and openness.
The basic plot description—in San Francisco in 1986, Harry Weinberg, an older man signs up for a writing class at the senior center and, assigned to write a letter to someone he’s lost, writes not to his late wife, Frannie, but to slain gay City Supervisor Milk, and fears for the safety of his openly lesbian writing teacher, Barbara Katsef—is an oversimplification that doesn’t begin to hint at the darkest of issues raised here. It’s a lot for a basically charming and tuneful musical to take on. And there’s plenty of Jewish guilt.
Older generations keep mum about what happened to them in the Old Country. Younger generations insist on being LGBT and Proud. A pink triangle on a t-shirt triggers an almost unspeakable memory. Harry and Frannie air Archie-and-Edith-Bunker-like sentiments in sweet songs that soften the conservatism. Do we like these people or not?
Harry (Adam Heller) and Harvey (Michael Bartoli) were each other’s customers in the former’s kosher butcher shop and the latter’s camera shop (“No One’ll Do for You”). Harry urged Harvey to make something of himself—did that lead to his becoming City Supervisor and getting assassinated by Dan White (CJ Pawlikowski)? Frannie (Stern) lives on, vividly, in Harry’s head—and bed (“Too Old for This,” “Thanks to Her,” “What a Shanda,” “Frannie’s Hands,” “Weren’t We?”) Barbara (Julia Knitel) fondly remembers her ex (Aury Krebs) (tender waltz “Love Is a Woman”), but hasn’t made a move to find someone else. Harry never calls his daughter. Barbara is alienated from her parents. Yussl (Jeremy Greenbaum) is a shadowy figure out of Harry’s hidden past. Harry and Barbara bring out the best in each other—writing (“Write What You See”) and love—and also the worst—in parent issues and fear (“Too Close”). There are epiphanies in a Jewish deli (song and dance number “Turning the Tables”).
Evan Pappas directed and Jeffrey Lodin is the music director. The actors certainly inhabit their roles. Don’t judge the “Milk” characters too harshly too soon—there’s a surprise ending that makes it all come right.
For tickets from $79 to 99, visit www.Telecharge.com
or telephone 212/239-6200. The Acorn Theatre is located at 410 West 42nd Street.