“A Letter to Harvey Milk” Show Review by Andrea Santo Felcone

Based on Lesléa Newman’s award-winning short story collection of the same name, “A Letter to Harvey Milk”—the musical–is about Harvey Milk, (the first openly gay elected official in the history of California), but also about so much more.  Milk’s character informs the story, but only in flashback, as this story takes place in San Francisco in 1986, well after Milk’s assassination. This show revolves around retired Jewish butcher Harry Weinberg (Adam Heller) coping with his loneliness since his wife, Frannie (Cheryl Stern), has passed away. Harry is struggling, living a life of little joy, until he stumbles into his local JCC and finds a writing class taught by a young woman, Barbara Katsef (Julia Knitel). Ironically, the Yiddish word for butcher is “katsef”; this connection is a wink to things to come as the two unlikely friends discover that Harry will be a gift to Barbara (perhaps the Jewish father she wishes she had); while Barbara becomes for Harry a friend and an outlet for the stories he has inside; stories he needs to release so they will no longer haunt him.

A Letter to Harvey Milk

Adam Heller (Harry) and Julia Knitel (Barbara)Photo by Russ Rowland

Barbara, we learn, is a young lesbian who has grown up in a family that has hidden their Judaism; a family that has rejected her ever since learning of her sexuality. Barbara is lonely, too, compounded by the fact that she is recovering from the break-up of her first significant lesbian relationship. Ever the writing teacher, she craves details about Harry’s life and starts to assign Harry (her reluctant student) weekly writing assignments. Harry warns, “The Devil’s in the details,” but proceeds. Harry’s wife, Frannie, though dead, is still ever-present in his mind (her entrance into the show is brilliant and unexpected). Frannie embodies a stereotypical portrayal of an older Jewish woman, a caricature; she is more close-minded than Harry. Her role is mainly comic relief to some of the larger, deeper themes expressed.

Barbara’s weekly writing assignments are stirring memories in Harry (who claims he’s not a writer). Her most personal request at the heart of this production: “write a letter to someone who has died.” One assumes he will write to Frannie, but Harry surprises everyone, and writes a letter to Harvey Milk. We discover Harry knew Harvey (Milk frequented Harry’s butcher shop) and they shared a friendly relationship as Harry was protective and fatherly to the ambitious and outspoken Milk. His letter to Harvey is poignant and Barbara immediately wants to have it published. Harry clearly has mixed feelings about this. The letter has dredged up the guilt, sadness, and shame, connected with Harvey Milk’s assassination (Harry could not protect him) and Harry’s difficult experience in a Concentration Camp. (This dramatic climax contains a surprise, so I will not share more details.)

A Letter to Harvey Milk

Adam Heller and Julia Knitel, entertained by waiters played by Jeremy Greenbaum, CJ Pawlikowski and Michael Bartoli; Photo by Russ Rowland

This musical is ambitious, especially for 90 minutes, and does an excellent job of keeping the storyline clear. There was one loose end, to my eye, most notably why Harry, a father figure to so many, is not in touch with his own daughter, but this doesn’t in the least detract from the heart of the piece. Adam Heller as Harry is brilliant. His portrayal makes Harry immensely likeable and three-dimensional. We would all be lucky to have a Harry in our lives. It’s no surprise that Heller has a host of Broadway stage and television credits to his name. Julia Knitel (Barbara) has a delightful singing voice and has recently finished a run as Carole King in the national tour of Beautiful). Cheryl Stern plays the caricatured Frannie well and the love between Harry and Frannie is convincing. There is a small supporting cast including Michael Bartoli who as Harvey Milk bears a strong resemblance to the real man.

A Letter to Harvey Milk

Adam Heller (Harry), Michael Bartoli (Harvey), Julia Knitel (Barbara) and Cheryl Stern (Frannie); Photo by Russ Rowland

If you are looking for one central show-stopping musical number, this show doesn’t deliver that as much as it has lyrical high points. My favorite was the touching song, “Frannie’s Hands”; Harry’s recollection of the details of his deceased wife’s hands. Milk’s assassination is addressed through the lyric: “if enough of us hold hands, no one can hold a gun”. A line that, sadly, has a particularly strong resonance currently. There are some witty turns of phrase throughout, including a fair amount of Yiddish. But what this musical may lack in lasting, highly-memorable songs, it more than makes up for in its storytelling and stellar acting performances—in my opinion, Heller’s performance is the standout.

“A Letter to Harvey Milk,” treats its audience to a very tender musical production, densely-packed with themes of Jewish heritage/Anti-Semitism, gay rights, grief, loneliness, and hope–through friendship, acceptance, and love. In the end, it is love that bridges the gap between unexpected friends.

At: The Acorn Theatre

at Theatre Row

410 West 42nd Street

Between 9th and 10th Avenues

New York, NY

Tickets: https://www.lettertoharveymilk.com/

Show runs through May 13th.

Starring: Adam Heller, Julia Knitel and Cheryl Stern

with Michael Bartoli, Jeremy Greenbaum, Aury Krebs, CJ Pawlikowski

Creative Team:

Book by Ellen M. Schwartz, Cheryl Stern, Laura I. Kramer and Jerry James

Music by Laura I. Kramer

Lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz

Additional Lyrics by Cheryl Stern

Orchestrations and Additional Arrangements by Ned Paul Ginsburg

Based on the short story “A Letter To Harvey Milk” by Lesléa Newman

Scenic Design by David Arsenault

Costume Design by Debbi Hobson

Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind

Sound Design by David M. Lawson

Music Direction by Jeffrey Lodin

Directed by Evan Pappas

Produced by Lisa Dozier King

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