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Review: Yentl Has No Identity Issues With Music, Acting

Asolo Rep's 'Yentl' blends a perfect mix of updated music and storyline of a classic play.

On the surface Yentl should have no interest to me, but the play isn’t at to be superficial.

I’m not Jewish; I’m not religious, for that matter. I don’t have gender identity issues. And I’ve never seen the movie version with Barbra Streisnd. 

But that’s the beauty of this new storyline: With all these groups the play could pander to, it instead finds common ground. There are universal themes of trust, friendship, honor, self-identity and youth in revolt.

I was just there for the music, really, and was rewarded with a great piece of theater as well.

At a recent matinee of Yentl, I had the opportunity to watch this new twist on the Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer play, directed by Gordon Greenberg.

I hoped to get some background for an interview with Jill Sobule — the singer/songwriter who composed original music for the Asolo production. She performs in a one-woman concert Monday at Asolo.

In this latest version, Yentl diguises herself as a boy, Anshel; befriends a boy and secretly falls in love with him. Anshel marries a woman thinking it will help friend Avigdor, while trying to do right by the Torah.

"We forget that Yentl is really a coming-of-age story. When Barbara (Streisand) was doing the movie, she was probably in her late '40s," Sobule told Patch in a phone interview.

"He's supposed to be 19, and that period is something you never get over, no matter how old you are.”

Hillary Clemens as Yentl/Anshel creates a warm Shakespearean invitation to the play and proceeds to show off a wide range of delivery throughout the production, from the comedy of trying to be a 17-year-old boy to defiantly becoming a strong woman battling the belief that women shouldn’t be educated.

Making comparisons is always risky, but there’s something about Clemens’ tendencies and delivery that brings to mind Anne Hathaway.

The two-act play moves along and also features a strong performance by Andrew Carter, who plays Avigdor, whom Yentl befriends as a boy.

Carter captures a 24-year-old’s hormones and desire to marry, even understandable by 19th Century Polish standards. Carter shows his vulnerable side, while maintaining the stubbornness of the average guy.

The character doesn’t quite bare his soul, but he does bare all for a hilarious scene, when he wonders why Anshel is afraid to swim with the other guys.

There also are Jill Sobule's songs – sardonic, observational and touching. They are performed by a Greek chorus and band — vocally led by Ashley Scallon and Summer Dawn Wallace — providing a soundtrack to montages and key plot points.

They also have some quick moving to get to the music at times, as Scallon plays Nechele and Wallace plays Pesha in the play, too. 

It all comes together quickly in Yentl at the funeral scene, where Yentl mourns her father, speaking and searching aloud for answers as the band performs “Last Candle.”

Where do I go now?

What should I be?

Nothing is written for someone like me

It is the last candle.

For you and me.

It was a poignant moment in the play, revealing vulnerability and a sense of alienation by Yentl, who struggles to make sense of her world and herself. I could hear sniffles in the audience and sense the watering eyes, even for this reporter. I guess you could say I got a little verklempt.

“That's the place where in the movie, where 'Papa Can You Hear Me?' is,” Sobule said. “That’s what everyone knows. I have to write a kick-ass song.

“In one of the writings in candle being symbolic, the body being wax of the candle and smoke being the soul, the last candle, finally leaves this earth and that was a little bit of research.”

Later in the play, the songs have their lighter moments, such as Jonathan and David, where the two biblical figures from the Book of Samuel are “really close if you know what I mean,” Sobule said.

There is What Have I Done? where Jon-Michael Miller, who also plays Gershon and other characters, exclaims “Oh S---! What Have I Done? … I’m in a jam.”

There’s no crutch, or artifice, in this play, where one part is introduced to just prop up another. The music and acting mesh terrifically for a well-balanced production. Sobule's musical contributions are so remarkable that one has to wonder what the play would be without them.

That almost came to be.

In a '90s kind of folk rock six-degrees-of-separation, Sobule has Lisa Loeb to thank for Yentl.

"I was approached by Gordon Greenberg, who was the director. "He originally approached Lisa Loeb," she said. "Lisa said, 'I'm not sure I'm right, or if it's the right time, but I think Jill would be good.'

"I was split. I was like, Yentl? Really? Then it was more enticing. It was a challenge; Yentl became more intriguing.” 

For the audience, Yentl is not a challenge to watch, but definitely maintains interest through the two acts.

If you go

Tickets are going fast for Yentl. The next available shows are a 2 p.m. Wednesday matinee and an 8 p.m. Feb. 18 performance. Tickets start at $31. For tickets, call or visit asolorep.org. Play runs through April 26.

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