Rothschild and Sons
Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Book by Sherman Yellen
Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London, N4 3JP
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
The Park Theatre has collaborated with US producer Arnold Mittelman to bring over his New York revival of the 1970 Broadway musical, originally called The Rothschilds. Musical theatre tastes do change but it is puzzling to understand while this solid piece by such luminaries as Bock and Harnick hasn't had more outings.
Bock's score shares the same melodic shine and klezmer shadings of their Fiddler on the Roof and Bock's lyrics are every bit as refined as his work on She Loves Me.
It's the story of the origins of the famous European Jewish banking family beginning in Frankfurt in 1772 when Mayer and his wife Gutele and their five sons endure the daily indignities, casual violence and effective enslavement within the Jewish ghetto. Through patience, perseverance and guile Mayer graduates from peddling precious coins (all they're allowed to do) to the local Prince to eventually developing a family banking business when the petulant Royal needs 'secret bankers' in his dealings with the Danish King.
The upheaval of Napoleon's invasion soon disrupts everything and opens up an opportunity for the family to expand. Mayer despatches his five sons to five different cities to claw back what they can of the Prince's loans with one is sent to England to invest what they recoup on the London Stock Exchange and establish the business there. It is an epic but always totally human story and yet it never flinches from presenting the ugliness of anti-Semitism. The piece has the feel and indeed the sexual politics of a 60s musical but yet at the same time it is totally timely. You only need to look at Hungary's moves against George Soros or the depressing normalising of anti-Semitism that still goes on.
The charismatic and fine voiced Robert Cuccioli is totally winning as Mayer (Hal Linden of Barney Miller fame won a Tony for the original) and Glory Crampton gives heft to an underwritten role as the matriarch. The two, as well as director Jeffrey B Moss, have come over from the New York production. Among the five sons Gary Trainor stands out as the maverick Nathan, whose rebel spirit needs containment by his anxious father, whilst Tony Timberlake relishes the scene stealing role as the vain and unscrupulous Prince. Moss's staging is simple but works in this intimate setting.
For Gutele the ghetto at least provided some protection and tries to rein in her ambitious husband who risks everything with his plans. Yellen's books makes the complex politics come alive and we see how the family eventually ended up having to bail out the Grand Alliance of states against Napoleon. In return they asked for the ghettos to be opened, only to be disappointed on that front. Despite this Mayer succeeded in his dream that his sons "would be the first generation who were not victims of the world but rather makers of it". The show is a potent history lesson within the confines of an affecting and entertaining celebration of family.