HTG presents the religious comedy ‘Ballyhoo’
Published: Monday, November 21, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, November 22, 2011 13:11
Hillel Theater Group's production of The Last Night of Ballyhoo is a sweet and sincere tale that combines an interesting amalgamation of Jewish family values with the search for personal identity and even a little bit of Christmas cheer. If that idea seems like a tough one to swallow, it is, and not just for the audience, but for the Freitag and Levy families, the play's central focus.
The play opens with Beulah "Boo" Levy (Joanna Nix '14) decorating the family Christmas tree—a compelling way to start off a play about a Jewish family. It turns out that Boo, along with her brother Adolph Freitag (Ben Miller '15) and sister-in-law Rebecca "Reba" Freitag (Sarah Pace '13), are the heads of household for a German-Jewish family living in Atlanta in 1939. The family has become so highly integrated into its community that its members have largely grown apart from their Jewish heritage.
There are two young adults in the family; the first, Lala Levy (Jacquelyn Drozdow '15) is Boo's dreamy, enthusiastic daughter who is in love with the film Gone with the Wind and aspires to be a novelist. The other is Sunny Freitag (Viktoria Lange '12), Reba's daughter, who is a bright young student at Wellesley College enamored with the works of Upton Sinclair. Out of everyone in the family, Sunny seems to struggle the most with her Jewish identity. This struggle becomes even more emphatic when Joe Farkas (Ryan Kacani '15), Adolph's assistant, is introduced to the family. Joe becomes involved with Sunny, and offers to take her to the titular Ballyhoo ball. However, things turn awry when Joe's Russian-Jewish values begin to conflict with the Freitag-Levy family, and he expresses discontent with the way the family has utterly disregarded their Jewish history. The conflict comes to a head at the Ballyhoo ball, and the resolution of faith and the identity of this Southern Jewish family becomes the play's ultimate focus.
This focus took a while to become clear despite its obvious importance. The play's intriguing opening scene was somewhat offset by a few dull scenes that focused on exposition for the admittedly complicated family structure. This exposition was probably necessary, however, and the play really gets going once Joe enters the picture.
The ensemble cast all played off of each other impeccably well, with Miller and Pace serving as the central sources of comic relief. Miller's Adolph provided a kindly father figure to Sunny and Boo, but he watches the events around him unfold with a detached, sardonic edge, and Miller played up this characterization with great comedic timing.
Pace, meanwhile, got the best lines in the show. Reba has a cheerfully absent-minded disposition, and Pace played up this faux-unaware attitude and counterbalanced it with hilarious deadpan line delivery. According to Pace, this playing up of the character's comedy was partially a conscious decision on her part. "I think I made Reba more of a comedy relief than she was originally written to be," she said. "I just thought that the show really needed to be lightened up at points, just because it does deal with some pretty heavy stuff. … If you juxtapose her with a character like Boo, she's all the more funny because Boo is very serious."
The rest of the cast members played their roles in a more straightforward fashion, and Kacani and Lange resonated with particular strength because they embodied so much of the play's internal dilemma. According to Kacani, it was the straightforward story arc of his character that really drew him to the part. "I thought it was something that I could relate to," he said. "A guy in his early 20s, working, falls in love [and] gets the girls in the end."
Nix and Drozdow were quite convincing as mother and daughter, with Boo's strength and concern for her daughter meshing well with Lala's innocence and free-wheeling desires. Rounding out the cast was Sylvan "Peachy" Weil (John Seale '15), Lala's date for Ballyhoo whose non-conformist and obnoxious attitude provided a nice opposition to the other characters, all of whom are fairly straitlaced.
The technical aspects of the show were also great for the most part. I particularly enjoyed the musical interludes, specifically the fantastic Judaic Klezmer rendition of "'Tis the Season," which musically captured the spirit of the show perfectly. Ballyhoo's director, Helena Raffel '14, had a style that was very fluid and lent itself to some great comedic moments, particularly when Lala descended down the stairs in her absurd Ballyhoo outfit—a dress that blossomed out from her waste like a bell. The first glimpse the audience got of her was her gigantic dress ballooning out from the doorway.
These great moments were sometimes inhibited by a bit of awkward blocking, particularly every time a character got up to move from the couch to the upstairs hallway. Because of the setup, the characters could not proceed from the couch directly to the door and instead had to walk around the couch to reach it, a movement that often wasted a few seconds and detracted a bit from the comedic pacing. The actors did sometimes compensate for this by balancing the long walk with amusing gestures, which helped a bit.
Overall, the production handled its theme of finding personal identity marvelously, and it helped that it was one that almost anybody can relate to. "I've never been subject to discrimination myself in that way, but I've certainly seen it happen," said Kacani on the matter. "I definitely think it's an important message to get out there. And it might not necessarily be one that a lot of people know about, … that rivalry between the two parts of Judaism."
Kacani's comments are probably true, and this show was a perfect venue for the audience to gain a better understanding of that rivalry and of the values intrinsic to any family, not just in the 1940s, but in today's world as well. Pace offered some poignant closing comments on the matter: "I hope everyone who came to the show walked away with a smile on their face, but also a lesson learned, and maybe are reflecting more about how the world we know of it today came to be this way because of sacrifices that were made."
The sacrifice of family values is what the show portrays and ultimately redeems through a rediscovery of the Jewish spirit at Christmas-time. It is tough subject matter to portray, but HTG's cast and crew nailed it. In the end, what the show is really about is bringing a family together through the bonds of faith, the battle against inter-Jewish discrimination and a rediscovery of personal identity. But whether Jewish, Catholic or any faith in between, these values are transcendental and reason enough to spend a night out at Ballyhoo.