`The Rise of David Levinsky'

The Rise of David Levinsky Musical by Isaiah Sheffer (book and lyrics) and Bobby Paul (music); based on the novel by Abraham Cahan. Directed by Sue Lawless. Starring Larry Kert, Avi Hoffman. The new John Houseman Theatre on West 42nd Street has opened auspiciously with a sturdily old-fashioned musical, ``The Rise of David Levinsky.'' Working from a period novel by Abraham Cahan, adapters Isaiah Sheffer, who wrote the book and lyrics, and composer Bobby Paul have fashioned a richly textured stage piece about the early days of the Jewish immigrant experience. The excellent ensemble, directed by Sue Lawless, surrounds strong central performances by Larry Kert as the hard-driving adult Levinsky and Avi Hoffman as his youthfully idealistic immigrant self.

``The Rise of David Levinsky'' begins in 1910, at a 25th-anniversary tribute to the garment tycoon. The authors immediately flash back to Poland in 1883, when David, orphaned by a pogrom, decides to emigrate to America. Once arrived, the studiously devout young newcomer endures initiation as a ``greenhorn,'' achieves what one song calls ``A Credit Face,'' and begins the rise announced in the title. While never quite forgetting the teachings of Talmud and Old Testament, he discovers Dickens and Darwin.

Levinsky's romantic life founders when he is rejected by the wife of one of his partners - a role delicately played and beautifully sung by Eleanor Reissa. Taunted by his younger self, the rising capitalist grows increasingly ruthless. While he cultivates anti-semitic money men, he exploits the new greenhorns, defies the nascent trade union, and alienates even his long-term business friends and associates. At last, returning to the 25th-anniversary celebration with which the story began, the authors allow the man Levinsky to make peace with the boy David.

``The Rise of David Levinsky'' is the kind of well-ordered musical in which the score amplifies and illuminates the matters at hand. Typical of the adaptation are studious David's ``Five Hundred Pages,'' contrasted with Levinsky's ``Five Hundred Garments.'' Songs like ``The Boarder'' provide incidental comic touches. The love duets accent the bittersweetness of the Levinsky-Dora relationship.

A cast of 15 fills the more than 30 roles involved in the populous immigrant drama. The production is blessed by fine acting and singing performances by Mr. Kert and Mr. Hoffman. The well-chosen company features Larry Raiken, Bruce Adler, Judith Cohen, and Arthur Howard. Thanks to them, to the skillful adaptation, and to the quite phenomenal accompaniment provided by pianist Lanny Meyers and violinist Susan Shumway, one leaves the Houseman Theatre feeling that ``The Rise of David Levinsky'' is the show that ``Rags'' might have been. Designer Kenneth Foy has filled the large stage with a fascinatingly atmospheric, all-purpose setting, lighted by Norbert U. Kolb. Mimi Maxmen has created all manner of picturesque costumes.

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