Heller, Knitel & Stern (Images by Russ Rowland)
Harvey Milk has become an almost mythical icon to LGBTQ people, a man whose accomplishments led to martyrdom.
Because of that, I went into the new Off-Broadway show A Letter to Harvey Milk: The Musical thinking it might be a fleshing out of his persona, simply based on the title.
I couldn't have been more wrong, but I was also pleasantly surprised that the show offers so many other twists and turns ...
Set in San Francisco in 1986, not so many years after Milk and Mayor Moscone were gunned down by Dan White, A Letter to Harvey Milk is instead about a man who met and knew Milk. Harry (Adam Heller) is a retired kosher butcher still struggling with being a widower, who revered Milk and still mourns his friend's tragic death.
Harry is drawn to a notice advertising a writing course at his local Jewish Community Center, but is strongly discouraged from revealing anything he wouldn't have told his late wife (Cheryl Stern) by the lady herself, who appears throughout the play visible only to him. In spite of his wife's restless spirit, he makes fast friends with his young, warm instructor (Julia Knitel), who tells him to write things drawn from his own experiences.
The teacher is amazed to hear that Harry knew Milk (played in flashback by Michael Bartoli), described as her idol (her lesbianism surprises Harry), and she nudges him to write about that friendship in an exercise.
It is Harry's letter to Milk that unlocks his depths as a character, that frees long-held secrets and that will at first alienate him from — but ultimately draw him closer to — his earnest young writing mentor.
As Harry, Heller is note-perfect (if too young), a solemn, soft-spoken man who is understandably jumpy around people like his teacher and like Milk, not because they're queer, but because they're so dead-set on being public about it, not fearing what could happen. He sings beautifully and sells the songs, which are at times affecting and sweet but can veer into corny.
Knitel is believable as an open-hearted girl from a Connecticut family ashamed of its Jewishness. She also has a clear, lovely voice that communicates her character's optimism and determination.
Stern gets a lot of laughs as Harry's broadly drawn late wife (who sings a song that rhymes shanda with Rwanda), but is perhaps such a caricature it becomes hard to understand what Harry saw in her; she was the love of his life, yet was pretty homophobic, brassy and unyielding. Perhaps he just liked a woman in control. That said, I believe her performance, which is unflinching, will either make you cringe or will be the one you absolutely love. She has an undeniable presence, physical and emotional, and sings the hell out of her numbers.
Stern also co-wrote the book and provided some additional lyrics to the musical.
Among the rest of the able cast, Aury Krebs pop in for an all-too-brief role as a woman who once embarked upon a passionate affair with the naive writing instructor, revealing a sultry, smoky voice and presence that elevates their scenes.
The musical was difficult for me at first, with songs mentioning Dan White's Twinkie defense and a pretty unfortunate scene meant to convey the importance of humor in Jewish culture that falls flat, but it builds tremendously to a genuinely moving climax that made me forget about having wanted to hear more about Milk himself — it is Harry's story, and he certainly has one.
With a book by Ellen M. Schwartz, Cheryl Stern, Laura I. Kramer and Jerry James; music by Laura I. Kramer; and lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz (additional lyrics by Cheryl Stern), A Letter to Harvey Milk runs from March 6 - May 14 at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd St., NYC).