“A Letter to Harvey Milk” is one of those rare musicals that dares to confront both LGBTQ history and Jewish history. And it does so with visceral wit, grace, and a full heart.
With an imaginative if unfocused book by Ellen M. Schwartz (who also wrote the lyrics), Cheryl Stern, Laura I. Kramer (who also composed the music), and Jerry James, this plucky chamber musical recalls the fateful day in 1978 when Harvey Milk, the first out gay elected official in California, was savagely shot dead along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.
Yet the tale, set in the City by the Bay eight years after the murders, is conveyed by an unexpected source — Harry Weinberg, an elderly, widowed Jewish butcher originally from Long Island. Even more surprising is that it’s told via a fantasy letter he writes to Milk for an intro writing class at the local senior center. Harry’s teacher, a mousy young lesbian woman named Barbara, becomes his champion and confidante. She wears a gold Star of David necklace that helps seal their bond.
The piece heralds Milk as a martyr who radically changed the lives of the LGBTQ community. “Harvey Milk died for me,” Barbara proclaims. The fearless activist, who was also Jewish, gave her and countless others the courage to burst out of the closet and be counted. Milk’s example was a wake-up call, finally breaking the silence. For Barbara in the mid-1980s this was no small achievement, since this was during the peak of the AIDS crisis, when silence equaled death.
For his part, Harry not only knew Milk and may have witnessed the shooting, but he also shares a dark secret involving pink triangles that is as harrowing as it is moving.
All this plays out under the watchful gaze of Frannie, Harry’s doting wife, who is deceased yet still very much with him. And because Frannie is a noodge, she does more than just watch. The buttinski steals the show with her running commentary on the proceedings, lobbing good-natured brickbats of disapproval, often in song.
“A Letter To Harvey Milk” embraces the power of storytelling, which reveals not only where we came from but where we’re headed. It also explores the complex bonds of friendship and the dangers of getting too close.
Under the direction of Evan Pappas, the ensemble is spot-on, adding complex layers to each character. Adam Heller expertly guides Harry from forlorn alta kocker to confident writer. Julia Knitel not only nails the role of Barbara, deftly portraying a parallel journey from timorous instructor to self-assured activist, but she delivers breathtaking vocals that are sweet and pure. As Frannie, Cheryl Stern brings warmth and dignity to what could have been a shrewish stereotype.
The dynamic supporting cast members, who play multiple roles, include Michael Bartoli (an uncanny lookalike for Milk), Jeremy Greenbaum, Aury Krebs, and CJ Pawlikowski.
The score, performed by a miniature orchestra on a prominent balcony onstage, is a pleasing mix of moody ballads, charm songs, and rousing anthems, all with a distinct klezmer inflection. One heartbreaking number sung by Harry, “Frannie’s Hands,” recalls the famous Sondheim ode to marital devotion “In Buddy’s Eyes,” from “Follies.”
Who knew that a play about Harvey Milk would have extra resonance in today’s world where a renewed debate over guns is raging. In Harry’s poignant letter, set to music, he repeatedly appeals for tolerance, community, and peaceful resistance: “If enough of us hold hands, no one can hold a gun.”
The inventive if slightly schmaltzy musical even offers handy advice on how to cope with tough times: “So tell a joke and have a nosh before the roof caves in.”
A LETTER TO HARVEY MILK | Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. | Through May 13: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed & Sat. at 2 p.m., Sun. at 3 p.m. | $79-$99 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Ninety mins., no intermission