Theatre Review: ‘The Strudel Lady’ at Jewish Repertory Theatre

Mary Kate O’Connell and Lisa Ludwig star in “The Strudel Lady” at Jewish Repertory Theatre.

Jewish Repertory Theatre began its 16th season with a sweet take on empowerment and transformation in the world premiere production of “The Strudel Lady.” Playwright Shirl Solomon penned this charming musical with a healthy dose of Jewish content and a universal message: sometimes it takes a strong new friend to help you believe in yourself.

Solomon’s story is touching.

“The Strudel Lady” is Chava, a recently divorced woman. Her ex lied about her to the rabbi, her children now shun her, and she wears her shame along with her drab and frumpy wardrobe. She meets a vivacious new friend, Faiga, wife of the temple cantor, who mends and updates Chava’s clothing, and by extension, repairs Chava’s broken spirit. Faiga sees a new opportunity for Chava, too: Chava is a wonderful baker and her strudel can put her on a path to financial independence and respectability.

Yes, it’s a bit like Pygmalion in a pogrom or “My Fair Lady” in a schmatta, but that’s what makes this production so grand. Four well prepared actors (and one on-stage keyboardist) roll out a five-year journey that’s a remarkable evolution for Chava, wonderfully played by Lisa Ludwig. Ludwig takes Chava on the path from bashful to self-confident with unabashed conviction. No longer content to be the baker in the background, we watch Chava emerge, and if she strays from orthodoxy along the way, she’s still true to herself and what she believes.

Chava owes the first steps in her journey to Faiga. Only a skilled and visionary director like Saul Elkin can coax the Jewish mama out of nun-playing, DIVA by DIVA creator like Mary Kate O’Connell, who adapts to this role like the surprise addition of figs in apple strudel. In other words, just delicious. O’Connell and Ludwig’s chemistry is the heart of the production: Faiga is to be admired, she’s the cantor’s wife who learned English and went to college after all. She’s full of sound advice for being happily married (“You still have to do it”), and succeeding in business, (“In business, lying is called marketing.”) too, and if Chava is reluctant at first, well, let’s just say she catches on. Perhaps a little too much. But growth sometimes is hard to reign in when a whole new world is opening up for you.

Rounding out the ensemble is Tom Makar as Faiga’s husband Velvel, the cantor who loves opera and likes to shake up Shul by applying Hebrew prayer to operatic arias. Makar’s resonant high baritone is well placed here. David Marciniak is loveable as Leonard, the restaurant executive who finds a place for Chava in his bakery department and beyond.

Solomon’s story is touching. Her songs add an interesting element to the production, too, as they often act as the “inner voice” or conscience of her characters.  Director Elkin made outstanding choices here: the ensemble’s voices were lovely, compatible, and blended. Elkin prompted depth from the actors, too. In places the plot was thin, and it was the forces of personality on stage that kept the story feeling real, like a modern-day fairytale with the message we all love to hear.

Running Time: 2 Hours with one 10-minute intermission.

“The Strudel Lady” runs until October 28, 2018 and is presented at Jewish Repertory Theatre. For more information, click here.