By Myra Chanin . . . 

If you, like me, are a first-generation American-born child of Russian immigrants who suffered greatly in the Bad Old Country before arriving in The Golden Land, then May 14, 1948, is as important a date to you as July 4, 1776, is to the D.A.R. It’s the date Israel officially became a Jewish nation, which meant that no matter what was happening anywhere on this planet, there was a land where I would be welcome, without any B.S. about visas or quotas, not despite my ethnicity, but simply because of it. The recent anti-Jewish smears floating around the internet makes the existence of Israel even more important to me, and that’s one of the reasons I looked forward to revisiting Israel at the Wick Theatre. Their production of Jerry Herman’s first Broadway musical, Milk and Honey, was a show I’d never seen, but I have visited Israel several times, and I hoped the Wick’s Milk and Honey would recapture that feeling of being with family.

Jerry Herman was one of the handful of extremely gifted composers who, like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Stephen Sondheim and Meredith Wilson, could create both rhythm and rhymes. His songs caught the ear of producer Gerard Oestreicher, who asked him if he’d be interested in writing the score for a Broadway musical about Israel, then subsequently sent him, along with librettist Don Appell, to see what life there was like and present it untainted by sentiment or schmaltz

As one might expect in any play about Israel, Milk and Honey opens with a dispute between a Yemenite shepherd (Mia Rubin) and the doorman of the fancy-schmancy King David Hotel about whether the Yemenite’s lamb is permitted to walk in front of the top hotel in Jerusalem. A tourist immediately adds his two shekels to the squabble—naturally, on the side of the lamb. The tourist is Phil Arkin, a retired builder from Baltimore, played by the amazing Avi Hoffman—the first time I ever saw him snare a romantic lead. His CV includes many one man shows (Too Jewish, Too Jewish, Two and Still Too Jewish After All These Years) as well as a plethora of schlimazels, including Willie Loman in Yiddish (which got him a Drama Desk nomination) and Lucky, waiting somewhere for Godot. 

A gaggle of widows—Colleen Pagano, Denise Demars, Elizabeth Dimon, Heather Simsay and Patti Gardner (aka, respectively, Mrs. Weinstein from Duluth, Mrs. Strouse from Cincinnati, etc.) react in unison in the care of their assertive group leader, Clara Weiss (Irene Adjan). Phil is attracted to Ruth (Laura Turnbull), the widow of a famous orchestra conductor. Might she be the mate that fate had him created for? Ruth is impressed with Phil’s command of Hebrew, actually slightly better than hers. In song, he teaches her the meaning of an important Hebrew word, “Shalom,” which means a million lovely things, like “peace be yours,” “welcome home,” and describes Israel as the world of the humble and proud and young, where the hopes of the homeless and the dreams of the lost combine. Both of these phrases brought tears to my eyes. Jerry Herman’s lyrics are memorable, because they are plain and unpretentious, yet pinpoint the feelings of millions. The tears in my eyes were hardly the only ones in the audience.

Phil has allowed the widows to think he’s unmarried, but he actually has a wife living it up in Paris and who will not give him a divorce. Will Ruth stay on in Israel and live with him in sin? It’s a solution that in 1961 would not please the more conventional prime theater tickets buyers for this particular musical: synagogue sisterhoods and Hadassah members. How does their romance end? Buy a ticket and see for yourself. However, if you’re concerned about morality, not to worry. Phil/Avi is cheating on his spendthrift estranged wife with Laura Turnbull’s Ruth. FYI, Laura is Mrs. Hoffman from Miami Beach, Avi’s actual wife who shares his naches from two wonderful daughters. 

Back to Basics. What makes this Wick Theatre production outstanding is the creativity of the cast and crew, as well as pretty much everyone connected with the show. They rehearse till the performance is perfect. Special notice is warranted for cast members Anthony Gruppuso, Whitney Grace, Elliot Mahon, Jonathan Eisele and the very pregnant Ravit Allen who is in no rush to get married. 

Let’s start with Marilyn Wick, a fastidious, passionate and committed Executive Managing Producer with amazing taste, who always selects plays that will please her diverse assortment of patrons: 2500 annual subscribers heading up to her pre-Covid 4000. She also always hires first-class artisans who beget First Class Plus productions. This crew created such heartwarming, sweet work that they deserve as much attention as they gave guaranteeing our pleasure. 

Peter Loewy’s precise direction led to flawless performances by everyone in the cast and ensemble. No one stumbled, flubbed, forgot a line or warbled a wrong note thanks to Oren Korenblum’s appropriately folky choreography, Phil Hinton’s masterful music direction and the commanding 30-piece orchestra on tape per Zachariah Rosenblum’s sound design. Kudos to K. April Soroka’s clever, moveable sets. I particularly like the piece she installed in the Negev that Abi Hoffman leaped up on in a single bound, like a young ram . . . or Batman. Josieu T. Jean’s miraculous projections deposited me first in front of the King David Hotel, then at a moshav in the Negev, on a hilltop from which I could see Jerusalem; and finally the wonderful projections sent me home to the US from the Tel Aviv airport. 

The only negative? The tone of the book, especially with regard to the widows. It seemed dated. I am becoming friendly with lots of widows lately and they don’t want to be known as Mrs. Anybody from anywhere. Ms. Somebody at NYU is much better. However, Irene Adjani, a quintessential yenta/fearless leader, remains in Israel as Mrs. Solomon Horowitz of Tel Aviv. He’s a diamond merchant, which in 1961 was well worth a mazel tov.

Milk and Honey. Through Nov. 6, 2022 at The Wick Theatre and Costume Museum (7901 N. Federal Hwy, Boca Raton, FL) Tickets: 561-995-2333 or 

Photos: ​​Amy Pasquantonio