Hard to believe, but the heavyweight boxing title once meant something — something larger than mere sports.
Joe Louis and Max Schmeling’s two bouts in the 1930s became potent symbolic events between America and Germany. And in the middle of those fights was a scrappy little promoter who himself was part of the metaphor.
Actor Tovah Feldshuh portrays Joe (“Yussel the Muscle”) Jacobs, Schmeling’s manager in “Dancing With Giants,” which had its world premiere Thursday at Illusion Theater in Minneapolis. Feldshuh’s brother, David, who debuted his Pulitzer-nominated “Miss Evers’ Boys” at Illusion many years ago, wrote and directed this new work.
Jacobs, a yappy New Yorker, made his reputation through colorful language, a gift for publicity and a keen sense of the sport. Jewish, he and the German Schmeling made an odd couple in a fraught era.
Their relationship was close — even as the national tension of the second Schmeling-Louis fight in 1938 must have created enormous pressure on Jacobs to transcend personal friendship and show loyalty to his country.
David Feldshuh initially spun his play on the axis of that curious friendship. He expanded it, to draw in Schmeling’s relationship with Louis and the Nazi leadership’s heavy-handed interest in their champion.
The result is that “Dancing With Giants” is both too much and too little — not enough flesh and bone in the dance between Jacobs and Schmeling and too much flab in the political message. The play flattens out into a historical document rather than a sharp three-dimensional insight into human nature.
Most people will attend this show because of Tovah Feldshuh, a brilliant actor who leapt to international attention in the 1978 TV miniseries “Holocaust.” Her performance here raises another question about her brother’s intentions with this piece. Tovah keeps an eye on the audience and her meticulous energy has the stylized physicality and the wink of a cabaret.
Tovah’s Jacobs is light on his feet, something of a dandy — more Brecht than Runyonesque.
This gives a great performer license, yet does it seem not entirely grounded and human?
As Schmeling, buff actor Sam Bardwell is made up to play the heavy. There comes a scene in the first act in which the play becomes a struggle for Schmeling’s soul, between Jacobs and Nazi Joseph Goebbels. It is Bardwell’s best moment, wavering between his friend and nation.
James Cunningham’s Goebbels wobbles with his German accent and the character’s signature limp comes and goes. Cunningham’s constitution is stout, though, and he gets to the psychological warfare favored by the Nazi. Frankly, though, Goebbels is on stage too much. These scenes suck away a lot of oxygen.
Ricky Morisseau, a talented young actor, is too handsome and fine to play Joe Louis.
There is no pleasure in reporting that “Dancing With Giants” misses an opportunity to unpack an exquisite, small relationship that was freighted with world politics. But that’s how it feels.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.