``Pearls'' converts a classic of the turn-of-the-century Yiddish play into a musical melodrama that seeks to keep faith with its origins. Jacob Gordin's ``Mirele Efros'' -- dubbed in its time ``The Jewish Queen Lear'' -- concerns the tensions that arise when a wealthy provincial widow is forced to confront the defiance of her headstrong daughter-in-law. The Jewish Repertory Theatre's production stars opera singer Rosalind Elias, who is making her theatrical debut in this Off Broadway collaboration. Set in the tiny Russian village of Slutsch, ``Pearls'' traces the uneven course of marital and in-law relationships from a rainy wedding day in 1885 to a prolonged mother-son estrangement and a finally achieved reconciliation. Nathan Gross, who has written the book, music, and lyrics for the adaptation, appears to have remained faithful to the Gordin drama. The show's 20 musical numbers amplify the moods and currents of the narrative in a series of solos, duets, and ensembles.
The plot of ``Pearls'' tells how Mirele (Miss Elias), at first against her better judgment, marries son Yossel (Daniel Neiden) to Sheyndele (Judy Kuhn), a scruffy but ambitious young woman. Among other things, Sheyndele has her eye on the pearl necklace and other jewels she has been promised, provided she makes Yossel happy. The dreamily bookish bridegroom is clearly no match for either his formidable but doting mother or his aggressively determined bride.
One of the virtues of the production staged by artistic director Ran Avni is the respect with which it treats the Gordin themes and concepts. Even though the characters today seem stereotyped and the developments predictable, they retain a theatrical validity, which probably explains why ``Mirele Efros'' was being acted here in its original dramatic form as late as the 1970s.
While Mirele may not seem much like a Jewish Queen Lear today, her tribulations nevertheless represent the ordeal of an overly protective mother whose apprehensions are painfully realized. Miss Elias plays and sings the role with affecting dignity and conviction. Miss Kuhn's Sheyndele is a nasty daughter-in-law. Mr. Neiden makes Yossel the kind of weakling ready to be dominated by the women in his life. A capable Jewish Repertory Theatre cast is completed by Stan Rubin and Grace Roberts as Sheyndele's c omically obnoxious parents, Gloria Hodes as Mirele's faithful housekeeper, and Richard Frisch as her equally faithful business manager.
One wonders how Gordin, a stickler for strict observance of his texts, would respond to Mr. Gross's adaptation. Perhaps the playwright of ``the Golden Age of Yiddish theater'' might be reconciled by the fact that the musical treatment derives from a folk-musical tradition that has long nourished the American lyric theater. Mr. Gross has honored it with a score that is usually pleasant, sometimes amusing, and occasionally haunting.
The Jewish Repertory Theatre production serves the visual needs of its material with imagination. Scenic designer Jeffrey Schneider uses the small stage (with its twin revolves) to good effect. Karen Hummel's costumes are in the mode and the mood of the period. Dan Kingsley has provided mellow lighting. The modest musical accompaniment led by Andrew Howard responds to the flavor of the score. The musical staging is by Haila Strauss.