A Musical Look at Immigrant Life


By Tanya A. Gingerich

The new musical “A Stoop on Orchard Street,” is educational family fare about the lives of Jewish immigrants in the Lower East Side in the early 1900’s. If you are looking for any significant insight into New York tenement life, this play will disappoint (for that, read Luc Sante’s fascinating book “Low Life”) but for a light evening of sentimental theater with a little history thrown in, head down to the Mazer Theater, in the neighborhood where it all began.

In the show, an aged vaudeville actor, Benny Lomansky (played by Lon Gary, also the director), narrates the story of his poverty-stricken childhood on Orchard Street. Through the colossal struggles and triumphs of his family and neighbors, we are shown a slice of life in the early 20th century slums of New York.

The tenement stoop plays the role of transplanted village square for these Eastern European immigrants—making a hard, unwelcoming new city a little friendlier and more manageable. Families and friends gather on the stoop to offer mutual support and companionship, the opportunity to unwind and commiserate, and of course, gossip. Sweltering summer nights make it impossible to sleep with so many bodies packed into so little space, so stoop gatherings often crawl on into the wee hours of the night.

The wealth and opportunity in this new country seem just beyond the immigrants’ reach, driving most to dream big and work hard. In this regard, New York hasn’t changed much—it remains the mecca for ambitious people seeking bigger, shinier lives. But then, as now, a few fell victim to their envy. Young Benny’s father Hiram (David Mendell), works punishing hours for little pay and is consumed by his desire to attain a lifestyle that taunts him at every turn. He says, “In the Old Country I didn’t have much, but at least I was comfortable in my skin…in America I see things everywhere that make me green with envy.”

“A Stoop on Orchard Street” is the sequel to “A Fiddler on the Roof”—in spirit if not in execution. There is no question that this production has its heart in the right place and there are talented, if still developing, performers in the cast, but the musical overall is currently on the level of an undergraduate production. Still, there are several highlights.

John Kirkwood and Sarah Matteucci play young sweethearts (Simon and Sarah, respectively) separated when Sarah was left behind in the Old Country. Both have lovely voices and give touching performances. Mattuecci delivers one of the only truly passionate moments in the play during her song, “In the Hands of Strangers” set in the Ellis Island Processing Center.

Other effective songs are “Man of the Family,” sung by young Benny when he tries to comfort his mother (Eleni Delopoulos) after their father abandons the struggling family to fend for themselves, and “Human Kindness,” nicely sung by Delopoulos. “The Bubbies” is a fun number that anyone who is (or has) a grandmother will enjoy. Jason Lee Courson’s stage design is first-rate, but a tad more grime and tatter might be in order to make some of his excellent costumes not look quite so new.

“A Stoop on Orchard Street” was written by Jay Kholos, who was inspired by a trip to the Tenement Museum. His grandfather was a Russian Jew who grew up in the area, and in the playbill Kholos writes: “The stories my grandfather told me came alive in those tiny rooms and dark hallways of 97 Orchard Street. As a young boy I paid respectful attention, but as an adult I finally understood what he was trying to say.” Koulos has had a long and successful career in TV as a writer and producer, but with this play Kholos makes his live theater debut.

The Tenement Museum is just a few blocks from the theater, giving the play’s venue an unmatchable authenticity. The show is playing in an open-ended run at the Mazer Theater at 197 East Broadway, in the heart of the district it illuminates.