By Harry Duke
The Borscht Belt comes to wine country with the Sonoma Arts Live presentation of Saturday Night at Grossinger’s. This musical by Stephen Cole (Merman’s Apprentice) and Claibe Richardson runs in Sonoma through May 8. It’s co-directed by Larry Williams and SAL artistic director Jaime Weiser Love.
An area in New York’s Catskill Mountains, the Borscht Belt was where hundreds of resorts that catered to the Jewish community thrived for over 50 years. Some of the world’s greatest entertainers either got their start there or appeared in their heydays to appreciative audiences.
Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel was one of the largest, and Cole tries to give the resort and the driving force behind it their due.
The show opens as if the audience were the audience for a Grossinger’s show in the 1960’s. Tummler (entertainer) Sheldon Seltzer (co-director Larry Williams) welcomes the crowd with a few era-appropriate jokes before he’s informed that the evening’s main attractions—Judy Garland, The Nicholas Brothers and Alan King—are stuck in a snow drift. Well, the show must go on, so the entire Grossinger family is enlisted to tell the story of how the resort came to be.
There’s Papa (Dan Schwager), who seems to thrive on telling his daughter, Jennie (Daniela Innocenti Beem), “No!” in triplicate to any of her ideas about building a resort; Jennie’s long-suffering but loving husband, Harry (David Shirk); and their children, Elaine (HarrietePearl Fugitt), and Paul (Tommy Lassiter).
Beem is in her element here as the brassy and driven Jennie and delivers her usual powerhouse vocals. Williams had the audience in his hands as the resort’s roving entertainer, who pines for Jennie. The heavy lifting in the dance department was done by the youthful Fugitt and Lassiter, who also contributed some nice vocal work.
An affectionate look at a by-gone era, Saturday Night at Grossinger’s is sometimes uneven and could use a tighter script. Also, the vocals were occasionally drowned out by Sherill Peterson’s on-stage band—a problem when most of the story is told in song.