It’s summer, which – to co-opt an Oscar Hammerstein lyric – means that not only is June bustin’ out all over with enticing theatrical prospects but July and August very much are, too. No matter which side of the Atlantic you happen to find yourself on, London and New York are ripe with theatrical goodies in front of which you might well find yourself kvelling. Or, at least, uttering the occasional bravo.
Fresh from the glamour of the Tony awards, Broadway is buzzing with British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s An American in Paris, which follows his Royal Ballet hit Alice, an almost through-danced adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1951 film. Having had its pre- Broadway tryout in Paris (where else?), the stage version at the Palace Theatre is its own distinct and glorious creature and comes with a book from the veteran American dramatist Craig Lucas, that amplifies and amends the characters’ back stories in ways that may be particularly resonant for Jewish audiences.
Unlike the Gene Kelly/Leslie Caron film, the stage version is set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, amidst a Paris seen buoyantly to be able to fly French flags, where previously flew the Nazi flags of the occupation. What’s more, the leading female character of Lise Dassin – Caron’s screen role taken in New York by Royal Ballet dancer Leanne Cope – is here a French Jew who has emerged from hiding only to find herself making her way amongst a swirl of men, including the expat American composer Adam Hochberg (played in a star-making turn by Brandon Uranowitz). Lucas says the rewrite is “about finding hope in the ashes”, and it’s hard to imagine anyone not being at once moved and exhilarated by the results: a dance musical that soars both literally and metaphorically.
Those keen to talent-spot their favourite Jewish performers may want to head to the Cort Theatre to see Seinfeld star Jason Alexander’s return to Broadway after an absence of 25 years, in the comedy Fish in the Dark — co-starring Rita Wilson, or Mrs. Tom Hanks. Alexander is replacing Seinfeld creator Larry David in the leading role of Norman Drexel – a part David wrote for himself to play in a sellout production that fared better with audiences than with the critics.
New York’s summer days can be swelteringly hot, but there’s scarcely a more pleasant way to cool off in the evening than amidst the alfresco environs of the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. That’s where the late, great Joseph Papp – a defining Jewish impresario in a city that has known no shortage of such men (and women, too) – launched Shakespeare in the Park in 1962, and with it, the tradition of two Shakespeare stagings per summer, costing audiences not a cent to attend.
This year’s lineup couples two late plays from the Bard: The Tempest, with Sam Waterston as Prospero (a role often seen as a Shakespearean variant of the Bard himself), and the lesser-known Cymbeline, in which a princess finds her fidelity tested, as well as one character (not to be revealed here) losing his head.
The very first summer season of Shakespeare in the Park featured George C Scott as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and that ever-contentious text is on view twice in Britain this summer, allowing audiences to engage with possibly the single most celebrated Jewish-related speech (beginning “hath not a Jew eyes”) in all of drama.
Continuing in repertory at Shakespeare’s Globe is the director Jonathan Munby’s production, which pairs Jonathan Pryce as Shylock opposite his own daughter, Phoebe, (playing the character’s daughter, Jessica). Pryce is no stranger to emphatically Jewish roles, having played Fagin on the West End in Oliver! in 1994 in a muted star turn that downplayed the Dickensian character’s ethnicity.
Several hours up the motorway, authenticity should be no issue for Makram J Khoury, the Jerusalem-born Arab-Israeli actor who is playing Shylock in a separate staging of the same play for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The director Polly Findlay’s account of Merchant will be running through the summer in repertory, with a well-received new production of the comparatively little-known The Jew of Malta, in which Jasper Britton stars as the eponymous Barabas in a Christopher Marlowe text that has for centuries been compared and contrasted with Shakespeare’s Merchant — expect multiple doctoral theses to be honed on the back of their pairing here.
If all that sounds too weighty, London offers its own alfresco delights courtesy of the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, which follows the run into July of Janie Dee in Chekhov’s The Seagull with the utterly contrasting choice of the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, starring West End regulars Alex Gaumond and Laura Pitt-Pulford. Seven Brides may hardly be the most Jewish of shows – Fiddler on the Roof this ain’t – but done right, it should put a spring in your step. Or, in this instance, a spring in your summer — as long as it doesn’t rain!
Matt Wolf is London theatre critic of The International New York Times.