With "Only One Sophie," director, producer and playwright Michael Robins has taken on one of the trickiest challenges in the theater. No, I'm not talking about crafting an original musical with a powerful story, great characters and catchy tunes that keep us coming back, even though that's hard, too.
Robins has written and directed a family-centered script that includes himself as a character, named Michael no less. He exposes himself in the musical, for which he wrote lyrics and for which Roberta Carlson composed music.
"Sophie" premiered Friday in Minneapolis at the Illusion Theater, which Robins founded in 1974.
In a time of political puffery, "Sophie" might seem self-aggrandizing, especially since the characters sometimes cluster onstage as if posing for a family portrait. That visual cue may speak more to Robins' ambition than his ego. "Sophie" often looks and feels like pictures from an album being shown to relatives.
"Sophie" draws on the life of Sophie Simon (Kersten Rodau), an indefatigable mensch who left her Russian shtetl in 1905 as a teenager dressed as a boy. She walked across Poland and then took a ship to America, settling in Minnesota and marrying Oscar Robins (Randy Schmeling). Her grandchildren included Michael (Bradley Greenwald).
The script jumps back and forth between her tombstone in contemporary St. Paul, which is visited by family, and her ancestral home. This approach, which mixes memories with the present, blurs the narrative in "Sophie," especially since designer Dean Holzman's metaphor-laden set is unchanging (the scenery includes a tombstone, what looks like a giant upturned fork and a large picture frame). Sometimes it's unclear which characters are speaking, where they are and when the action is taking place.
"Sophie" also lacks dramatic tension. Why would a teenage girl dress as a boy and walk across an entire country? What were her experiences? And what did it say about the world then, and now?
The cast of "Sophie" is headed by superb performers Greenwald as Michael and Rodau as the title character. Greenwald, a beautiful baritone, sings plaintively "Are You There, Grandma." Rodau delivers "Sometimes Love Is Not Enough" with understanding and hard-won hope, even though she does not have material that shows off her chops.
The two-act production has many strong elements drawn from Jewish culture, including superstitions like not putting your hat on a bed or shoes on a table, as those things invite death into the home.
The show's songs proudly evince melodic influences from Yiddish folk music. Carlson conducts the three-person ensemble that serves as the show's orchestra, and their sound is sometimes bigger than their parts.
Still, "Sophie" misses opportunities to increase its stakeholders beyond an important and prominent family. That is too bad, because there is very good material there. And if Robins had fully succeeded, he would have pulled off a theatrical hat trick.