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2017 Philadelphia Fringe Festival Review: ‘As the Matzo Ball Turns – The Musical’ by Heart of a Lion Productions at the Independence Seaport Museum

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A ten-year account of the failed pursuit of his Hollywood dreams, Gene Duffy’s As the Matzo Ball Turns – The Musical is an ambitious stage adaptation of the eponymous 2012 autobiographical chronicle by small-town Pennsylvania native Jozef Rothstein (Duffy’s pen name) – an aspiring actor earning his living as a waiter in a Jewish deli in Los Angeles while learning the ins and outs of show biz. Though the book met with critical acclaim, the current Fringe incarnation, presented by Heart of a Lion Productions in association with La Princesa Productions, doesn’t yet live up to the promise of its sardonic soap opera-inspired title.

Rehearsal photo of the cast. Photo courtesy of the production.

Rehearsal photo of the cast. Photo courtesy of the production.

Written and directed by Duffy and Sara Viteri, with music by Duffy and Daniel DeMelfi, and musical direction by Joanna Bryn, the show – previously developed and presented at venues in northeastern Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley – is disjointed and unfocused, and in need of the critical observation of an outside eye. The confusing narrative (whose personal diary style works better on the page than on the stage) moves in and out of reality, jumping from scenes of the author’s real-life experiences to conversations with personifications of his inner voice and the seductions of Tinsel Town, to dream sequences and fantasies about the devils in the Hollywood machine, to political statements about 9/11 and the American Revolution. While the production’s investment in copious sets, props, and costumes is all too obvious, the show’s pacing is sluggish, with long and noisy blackout transitions between the short segments. The cast’s delivery is generally stilted, the song-and-dance routines (choreographed by Viteri and Andrew Stewart) are often out of harmony and out of synch, and the sound (by John and Donna Evans) is problematic, with many of the actors’ lines inaudible, the pre-recorded music frequently overpowering the vocals, backstage noises amplified throughout the theater, and occasional episodes of distracting static. Lighting, too, is erratic, with errant spotlights that repeatedly miss the mark.

Among the most successful elements of the show are a series of silly drag performances presumably encountered by the protagonist in LA (Stewart’s Tina Turner is especially spot-on), a short bit with a well-known British actor’s stop at the diner (in the costume of his most famous movie character), and the rap sections of the titular opening and closing number (performed with appropriate attitude by Devinal Roman).

Viewed in the context of the Philadelphia Fringe and the increasingly professional quality of its offerings since the Festival’s incipience, As the Matzo Ball Turns still has the look of an amateur community-theater production that isn’t ready for the big stage in a major market. At two and a half hours, the show could benefit from some focused editing, tightened performances, and a more fluid design.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.

As the Matzo Ball Turns – The Musical plays through Sunday, September 10, 2017, at Heart of a Lion Productions, performing at the Independence Seaport Museum – 211 South Christopher Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the Fringe box office at (215) 413-9006, or purchase them online.

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