Tuesday 30 January 2018

Rothschild & Sons - Review

Park Theatre, London


Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Book by Sherman Yellen
Based on The Rothschilds by Frederic Morton
Directed by Jeffrey B. Moss

Robert Cuccioni

Playing at the Park Theatre for one month only, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s Rothschild & Sons marks the European premiere of a show that (as The Rothschilds) first played Broadway in 1970. Several years earlier Fiddler On The Roof had defined the pair’s credentials in setting the travails of Europe’s Jewry to music. But where Fiddler’s fictional action never left the village of Anatevka, Rothschild & Sons spans the continent with its history.

There was clearly a lot going on in the late-18th century that was to inspire future musical theatre creatives. In North America Alexander Hamilton was carving out his career, while in Frankfurt’s Jewish ghetto, the young impoverished Mayer Rothschild showed a canny eye in recognising antiquities and selling them to the city’s wealthy classes. His circumstances slowly improved, Mayer married Gutele and they had five sons. As they in turn matured, so too did Rothschild’s shrewdness, with a combination of circumstances and negotiation placing him in the fortuitous position of broking a loan from Prussia’s royalty to the king of Denmark and from there, the Rothschild fortune grew. The narrative soon shifts focus to son Nathan who, against a backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, is tasked with investing the family wealth on the trading exchanges of London.

Mayer Rothschild was driven not only by an inspired combination of chutzpah and prudence, but was also a profoundly driven philanthropist, longing for the Jewish people to be freed from the imposed segregation and ghettos confining them in continental Europe. When the German Prince Metternich was to renege on a commitment that he had made to liberate the country’s Jews in exchange for a war loan from Rothschild, Mayer died broken-hearted. It was to be his sons who in a commercially daring and risky move, were to finally force Metternich into giving the Jews their liberty.

As a musical, the show works as an entertaining and informative one-act history. Its structure however feels firmly rooted in the 1970s (although an off-Broadway take on this reworked version had a creditable run in 2015). Where Fidder’s women were a driving force in that musical (itself drawn from a story originally titled Tevye And His Daughters) Gutele is marginalised, her maternal love and anxieties reduced to little more than footnotes.

A nice production touch sees Robert Cuccioni lead as Mayer. Cuccioni, over from America for the show, played Nathan off-Broadway in 1990 before leading the 2015 production and he brings a rich depth to the character that faintly echoes Topol’s Tevye. He portrays a compelling yet compassionate strength within the visionary Rothschild and is also blessed with a majestic voice that drives the show, convincing in his patriarchal stature. Opposite Cuccioni, Glory Crampton, another American import, replicates her 2015 Gutele with fine vocal work in the comparatively modest role.

Of the five sons, Gary Trainor’s Nathan is the most compelling, with that complex chemistry that can exist between father and son cleverly explored between him and Nathan. In his duet with Mayer, What’s To Be Done? both men smart with the humiliation and agony of Jew hatred that permeated Europe, while in This Amazing London Town, Trainor captures not only Rothschild’s ability to profit from commodities, but also his recognition of the thinly veiled prejudice and cultural contempt shown to him by the English.

In a range of cleverly caricatured cameos Tony Timberlake plays the wigged contemptuous nobility of Europe from both sides of the Channel, with a hint of the satire that underlies Hamilton’s King George here too (men in wigs will always look ridiculous). Harnick’s lyrics cleverly expose the vile moral bankruptcy of the elite, as Bock’s melodies offer up a minor-key medley of melancholy and oppression.

The production is another example of London’s off-West End at its finest, seeing a relatively obscure musical dusted down and shipped across the Atlantic (and under the watchful eye too of a 93 year old Sheldon Harnick, in the Park Theatre audience for press night). Ben van Tienen made fine work of the score, as Pam Tait's costumes were meticulous in their suggestions of both time and place.

In our modern era Rothschild & Sons is unlikely to sustain a full blown commercial revival - but at its core it nonetheless remains yet another paean to man’s inhumanity. While Hitler’s 20th century Holocaust was unquestionably the worst display of industrialised slaughter of a people, he was only executing a long held hatred that had burned across Europe for centuries. Rothschild & Sons reminds us that the ultimate institutionalised racism, the state-sponsored ghettos of anti-semitism, had long preceded the Nazis. The show may date from the 1970s - its message however is timeless.

Runs until 17th February
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

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