Hillary Clemens and Andrew Carter in the Asolo Rep’s Yentl.
Those familiar only with the Barbra Streisand film version of the Isaac Bashevis Singer story of Yentl, the girl who dressed like a boy so she could study and learn, will likely be a little bit surprised by the Asolo Rep’s stage version of the piece, written by Leah Napolin and Singer himself. That’s partly because of some changes Streisand made to the original story, but perhaps more so because this production features songs by composer Jill Sobule that are very unlike the movie’s more conventional soundtrack.
Sobule’s music here, a mix of klezmer, punk and folk sounds, is one aspect of the play that may help younger generations relate to Yentl’s tale. But under Gordon Greenberg’s direction, Singer’s piece should certainly speak to young people today anyway, especially to those concerned or confused about their sexual identities. In the relationship of Yentl, her fellow yeshiva student, Avigdor, and their mutual beloved, Hadass, it becomes apparent that Singer understood decades ago that love comes in many forms.
From the moment the curtain rises, it’s also apparent that the world of books and learning towers over Yentl (Hillary Clemens, in an energetic and engaging performance). Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set features a high, high wall of shelves of books, filled with the knowledge of the world—all of which would be denied to Yentl as a female under the strict Jewish religious laws of the time and place, in a small town in Poland.
We know from the outset that despite her challenges, Yentl will pursue that knowledge. Her father (played by Howard Millman, who’s both touching and funny in several roles here) has taught her more than any other girl because he had no son, but he still wants her to find a husband through the tried-and-true matchmaker tradition. Yentl wants to please him, but she can’t force herself, and when he dies, it’s time for her to tear herself away from her past and look forward to a future as a supposedly male yeshiva student.
Of course things are complicated by her close kinship with Avigdor (Andrew Carter, also in a winning performance here) and her feelings for Hadass (Gisela Chipe), the woman to whom Avigdor was once engaged and who now is transferring her affections to the male version of Yentl, Anshel. Soon Anshel and Hadass are to be wed, and at first, are happy enough—a condition made possible only when, as Anshel says, “neither knows very much” about sexual relations. In other words, affection counts for more than anatomy.
Yentl, with its hard-to-make decisions for its heroine, should touch almost anyone who sees it, although it may be a tossup for some as to whether Sobule’s songs, performed by two musicians and mostly FSU/Asolo Conservatory students choreographed (by Josh Rhodes) to the side of the main action, add a welcome contemporary layer to the production or are merely, at times, rather jarring. Some may be initially shocked by brief scenes of male nudity during a swimming outing, although they’re both natural and important here.
Overall, though, it’s mostly the performances by the main trio of young people that you’ll remember from this Yentl, which continues onstage through April 26. For tickets, call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.