Touching 'Golem of Havana' ties figure from Jewish folklore to Cuban revolution

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- What does a musical set in 1958 Havana during the reign of Castro predecessor and dictator Fulgencio Batista have to do with a molded-from-clay monster from Jewish folklore?

More than you'd think, playwright-director Michel Hausmann will tell you.

Inquire further, and Hausmann will no doubt discuss--and encourage you to attend-- his new musical "The Golem of Havana," which opened at Miami Beach's Colony Theatre recently and has been extended through Feb. 14 due to popular demand. The production is mostly a success for Miami New Drama, a non-profit company founded by Hausmann which is staging "The Golem of Havana" as its debut work.

The musical, which received a world debut in 2013, is a riveting, moving, at times heart-breaking, relatable show peppered with some humor about a Hungarian Jewish family torn between achieving success and betraying and putting in mortal danger the son of someone they know and admire.

The musical attempts to use a golem, a mythical figure that, according to legend, was created by an 18th century Polish rabbi to save the Jews from pogroms, as a savior-like symbol for pre-revolutionary Cuba. The show seamlessly blends Jewish Klezmer music with Cuban music, some dark, some light and upbeat, depending on mood, to unite the cultures. That melding mirrors the melting pot that is Miami and one need look no further than Lincoln Road, where the Colony Theatre's located, to find that diversity. The actors' expressive voices are backed by a six-member band which plays without missing a beat or drowning out the actors.

The metaphor of a revolution as a golem might seem farfetched. However, it's helpful to know that a golem isn't all golden. Legend has it that once the transformed monster has done its work, the creature attacks its creator.

In the mind of Hausmann, one can compare a golem to an uprising such as the Cuban revolution. The rebels (the "golems") who started it might have spared the Cuban people at the time from more of Batista's dictatorial rule, but Fidel followed.

Ask Miami residents who've emigrated from Cuba, as well as the country's residents, about the decades that followed on the island.

But in the musical, golems take a back seat to a much more concrete and human question: What should you do if you find yourself in the situation of the Frankels, the Hungarian-Jewish family at the center of the musical? You've come to Cuba, as other Holocaust survivors did after the war, success looks to be within your grasp and then you suddenly face a heart-wrenching choice: striving toward your well being or saving a fellow human being from possibly torture?

In the Frankel family's case, the young man who presents the dilemna is Teo Rondon, the son of the family's maid, Maria (a caring but stern and convincingly emotional Rheaume Crenshaw) who has decided to join the rebel cause. Then the young man gets shot and stumbles back into the Frankel household. Those in power are on his trail and the Frankels know it.

"The Golem of Havana" can bring to mind the true Holocaust story "The Diary of Anne Frank." During World War II, the Nazis were trying to snuff out Jews such as the 13-year-old girl's family, but a non-Jewish family hid the Franks in their attic. That put not only the Franks, but the good-hearted hiders in danger.

Now, it's a stretch to compare a peaceful family whose only crime was their identity to a man who, by his own will, decided to become a rebel fighter. But if anyone can empathize with the plight of Rondon, it's the Frankels. The wife of the family, Yutka, lost a sister to the Nazis, so she can probably imagine what Batista's men will do to Rondon if they catch him.

In the musical, it's as though the Frankels find themselves in the plight of the non-Jewish family in "The Diary of Anne Frank," hiding the wanted Rondon. The Frankels' hopes rest on the man of the house, Pinchas, opening a tailor shop with the help and backing of their friend, Arturo Perez.

Meanwhile, the Frankels' daughter, Rebecca, has nightmares of her family's ordeal in Nazi-ruled Europe. She dreams of a golem to make things right with the family's present situation.

Part of Miami New Drama's mission is reflecting Miami's multi-cultural mix, and "The Golem of Havana" is a perfect play to begin doing that.

The musical and this production achieve mixed results.

Hausmann, who wrote the book for the musical and directed it, has created some arresting arrangements of actors that rivet you to the stage. Hausmann has also coaxed sensitive, subtle performances from a talented cast.

Yelena Shmulenson has a strong-willed, unyielding and angry air as Yutka, the surviving Frankel sister. Shmulenson's upright posture with arms folded reinforces these traits. Her performance is contrasted by Allen Lewis Rickman, who conveys a weariness but also the sense of a caring, hard-working family man with a will to live.

Chaz Mena's performance is multi-faceted and he imparts a natural charisma as family friend Arturo Perez.

As Teo Rondon, the rebel fighter, Ronald Alexander Peet nails a convincing urgency, and later a frightfulness that someone in his situation would feel.

Rondon grows close with Rebecca, played with a touching sensitivity, naivete and vulnerability by Liba Vaynberg.

Lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger achieves an otherworldly effect during Rebecca's dreams with dark, unrealistic lighting.

Production weaknesses include actors sitting off-stage, in plain sight of the audience, which diminishes the realism of the piece. At one point, a radio plays, and some of those off-stage actors play the voice on air or mimic the sounds of the period radio as it's turned on or off.

While scenic designer Edwin Erminy includes period props and a simplistic set so we can focus on the characters, it's unclear what role the tall columns on-stage have.

One of the weakest scenes comes when Rebecca tries to compare Teo's plight to a tragic situation involving a Frankel family member in Europe. Rebecca's mother slaps her, but it looks so fake the director ought to think of another way to express Yutka's rage.

The musical's shortcomings include seemingly sudden and quickly-arranged meetings between the Frankel famly and the president of Cuba, who is written too light-heartedly and in a laid back manner for a dictator. Actor Felipe Gorostiza does what he can with the role as written.

Also, Rebecca's dreams seem too vivid for someone who didn't actually experience the family's horror in Europe (she was born in Cuba). Even if her family described those atrocities to her, words can only do so much to leave such a lasting impact, causing such nightmares.

"Golem" is not your typical light-hearted musical with a happen ending. Rather, it's a thought-provoking, heart-breaking, riveting, relatable musical that shines a light on multiculturalism and the tough choices we sometimes have to make.

 

IF YOU GO

WHAT: "The Golem of Havana"

WHEN: Through Feb. 14

WHERE: Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach

HOW MUCH: $35 to $65. For tickets, visit www.miaminewdrama.org.