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At the center of the warm yet almost entirely oomph-free new musical Goldstein is a fictional memoir, also called Goldstein, that spills all the big secrets of one Jewish American family (also called Goldstein). The volume’s author and the family’s unauthorized historian, Louis (a self-satisfied Zal Owen), had the good manners to wait until most of his relatives were dead before he started writing about them, but he forgot to account for their ghosts, whose wide-open schedules give them plenty of time to haunt his book tour. And boy, do they have some notes. No sooner has Louis launched into a reading at a public lecture series than two generations of Goldsteins appear onstage to tell us that he’s full of it. “You distort and deceive, you torture and twist,” grandpa sings. “And while a fact may be true, its truth may be missed.” The family intends to set the record straight.
The remainder of Charlie Schulman’s script — inspired by his 1998 non-singing play The Kitchen — recounts the not-especially-grand Goldstein saga in a multivocal way, which seems fitting for a musical as well as a handy means of widening the limited perspective of the first-person memoir. While Louis narrates his version of things, we hear occasional variations and objections, particularly from his ailing aunt Sherri (Megan McGinnis). She still survives, but lives in the kind of mental fog (dementia is hinted at) where the past is clearer than the present. It eventually emerges that Louis has most of the facts right; what Sherri faults him for is blabbing other people’s business, and then judging them harshly for their decisions.
But to be honest, what Louis blabs never seems all that momentous. We learn that family matriarch Zelda (a no-nonsense Amie Bermowitz), a hardworking immigrant from Russia, had a thwarted love affair that started on the boat to America. Louis uncovers the uncourageous military records of both his father (Aaron Galligan-Stierle) and grandfather (Jim Stanek). And when Louis comes out of the closet as a young man, familial support is hard to come by. All potentially interesting, but not exactly the stuff of front-page scandal.
It’s not that Schulman needs to supply soap opera twists and huge reveals. But if these are the secrets, sins, and disappointments that have shaped these lives, we should feel their impact. Instead, Schulman seems eager to assure us at every turn that these are decent, diligent folk, all things considered. Zelda may be stubborn and prickly, but she keeps the family’s dress shop afloat for decades and, besides, leaves candy around the house for her kids to find. Louis’s father may be distant and career-obsessed, but he sings a loyalty ballad to sister Sherri and earns a he’s-not-so-bad number from daughter Miriam (Julie Benko). As Sherri insists again and again, everybody is trying their best and should be cut some slack. But the characters might be more interesting if they were less forgivable. Throughout the evening, I kept imagining what Louis’s pitch for his manuscript would sound like: “Ordinary family loves one another despite making minor mistakes and living in New Jersey”?
Adding to the show’s too-safe feeling are the subdued performances in Brad Rouse’s staging and the determinedly inoffensive nature of Michael Roberts’s score, which often sounds like some Tin Pan Alley denizen noodling on the piano during a lunch break (Roberts also wrote the lyrics). The heavy wood furniture in Alexander Woodward’s scenic design and Maureen Freedman’s old-fashioned costumes, meanwhile, contribute to the impression that the characters are insulated from upheavals in the wider world; the look of the production never seems to advance in time. Late in the musical’s ninety minutes, it comes as a surprise when someone says we’ve reached the early Eighties; apart from some references to World War II early on, flashbacks unfold in an unspecified, sepia-tinted past.
The show is at its liveliest and most affecting whenever the focus shifts to Sherri, Louis’s favorite elder relative and temperamental opposite. In her youth, Sherri has a dream of becoming a doctor and even earns a scholarship to medical school. But her traditional parents won’t give her permission to go, arguing that women should stick to tending to husbands and children. Not the type to buck her parents, Sherri stays home and, later, has to stand by while her less talented brother embarks on a medical career with his family’s full blessing. She lays it all out in a haunting ballad — one of Roberts’s best — called “Boys”: “Boys want, boys get. Girls sit looking.”
But instead of growing resentful, Sherri becomes the family cheerleader and secret keeper, dutifully serving old and young alike while protecting the lot from unpleasant facts. In a layered and quietly heartbreaking performance, McGinnis plays her as if straining to maintain a hopeful smile in spite of an ever-present melancholy ache. It’s no wonder she gets mad at her nephew for exposing the family’s imperfections — if the Goldsteins weren’t worthy, then what did she sacrifice herself for? Of all the characters, she provides the most genuine insights about family and the ways it can be both comforting, in its traditions and togetherness, as well as imprisoning, with its stifling responsibilities, compromises, and hidebound conventions. As Sherri discovers, the people who want the best for you can end up draining away what’s best about you. Maybe she’s the one who should have written a book.