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JRT's 'Strudel Lady' lays on sweetness, without much depth

Tradition can be toxic.

A large and growing body of Jewish literature and drama attests to this inconvenient fact of modern life, from Chaim Potok's heartbreaking book "My Name is Asher Lev" to the plaintive songs of "Fiddler on the Roof."

Shirl Solomon, a Philadelphia-based novelist and playwright, makes a minor contribution to this canon with "The Strudel Lady," playing through Oct. 28 in the Jewish Repertory Theatre's Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre in Getzville. Solomon's slight musical, with strong characters teetering atop a weak score, tells a sweeping story about one woman's struggle to free herself from the psychological constraints of her previous marriage and adapt to the rhythms of modern life.

The action revolves around Chava (Lisa Ludwig), an impossibly frumpy, 40-something divorcée whose ex-husband lied to their rabbi to be granted a divorce. Those lies have resonated through Chava's family, turning her into an irredeemable pariah in the eyes of the community. That is, except for her friend Faiga (Mary Kate O'Connell), an overwhelming personality with an overwhelming dedication to Chava's post-divorce life.

Through Faiga's encouragement, Chava begins baking strudel for temple functions, gradually inching out of her shell and gaining some confidence. That confidence eventually takes her to New York City and into a modern relationship, setting up a conflict between Chava's newfound self-confidence and freedom and the religious traditions to which Faiga still clings.

"After my fifth child," she tells Chava in one of her memorable mini-monologues, "I fell in love with my husband."

The story has potential and its arc is well plotted, but in this telling — limited by the financial constraints of casting and setting — it feels quite thin and underdeveloped. Even so, the characterizations are strong, both in the writing and the acting, and we come to feel a genuine connection between Ludwig's frazzled Chava and O'Connell's hilariously overconfident Faiga.

The most effective parts of the story are when we see Faiga trying, by sheer force of will, to transfer some of her own God-given enthusiasm and strength to her struggling friend. It helps that director Saul Elkin keeps the action moving at a steady clip.

"In big business," O'Connell says, in her inimitable way, "lying is called 'marketing.' "

Next to Ludwig and O'Connell's chemistry, Tom Makar's portrayal of Faiga's husband Velvel strikes a disconcertingly artificial note, nothing like the easy charm and magnanimity he achieved in JRT's 2017 production of "After the Revolution." David Marciniak, conversely, brings a welcome sensitivity and three-dimensional warmth to his character, a New York bakery owner and love interest for Chava who seems to arrive directly from central casting about halfway through the production.

Solomon's songs, ably played by music director Joe Isgar on a keyboard, veer toward the didactic without being particularly inventive in the melody department. One example, a musical ode to the notion that it is not a sin to show affection, has the characters repeatedly singing the lyric, "It's not a sin to show affection." Message received.

Still, the dialogue and characterizations in Soloman's piece — especially as embodied by O'Connell's character — provide plenty of charm and more than a few belly laughs. While this play and production are not likely to make a lasting contribution to the great canon of Jewish literature exploring the collision between tradition and modern realities, enough local talent is on display to fill a worthwhile Sunday afternoon.

Theater Review

"The Strudel Lady"

★★½
(out of four)

"The Strudel Lady," a musical, runs through Oct. 28 in the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville. Tickets are $10 to $38. Call 650-7626 or visit jewishrepertorytheatre.com.

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