Potok novel `The Chosen' becomes a musical

The Chosen Musical by Chaim Potok (book), Philip Springer (music), and Mitchell Bernard (lyrics), based on the novel by Mr. Potok. Directed by Mitchell Maxwell. Starring George Hearn, Gerald Hiken. The friendship of two Jewish boys in 1940s Brooklyn and the enmity between their fathers inform ``The Chosen,'' the finely textured new musical at the Second Avenue Theatre. In adapting his best-selling novel of the same name, Chaim Potok has provided the libretto to which composer Philip Springer and lyricist Mitchell Bernard have responded with a score rich in melody and ethnic reference.

``The Chosen'' gets into action with a baseball game pitting boys from a secular school against a team of Hasidic youths, the latter in their traditional black garb and with sidelocks neatly curled. After a defiant ``Play to Win'' number, the plot starts unfolding when Danny Saunders (Richard Cray) deliberately hits Reuven Malter (Bob Morrow) with a pitched ball.

When Danny visits Reuven to apologize, initial hostility melts into friendship. Reuven introduces Danny, a Talmudic scholar with phenomenal memorizing powers, into an intellectual world undreamed of by the strictly taught Hasidic youth - a world that includes Fitzgerald, Conan Doyle, Lawrence, and even Freud. In return, Reuven is welcomed into Danny's family, headed by the formidable Reb Saunders (George Hearn), and into a mystic, hermetic sectarianism where Danny occupies the role of a prince.

Creation of the state of Israel in 1948 brings the friendship to its point of crisis. The smoldering enmity between Reb Saunders and Reuven's devout but liberal journalist-father (Gerald Hiken) breaks out into open hostility. David Malter exhorts from a rostrum while Reb Saunders thunders from his pulpit and excommunicates the offending writer from his congregation. The anti-Zionist rabbi violently opposes the creation of a secular Jewish state, believing that the Messiah must come before the Jews can claim their homeland.

The collaborators have interspersed the unfoldment of this complex plot with a tapestry of melodious songs admirably performed by Mr. Hearn and his colleagues. Though at times abrupt and fragmentary, the tale is sustained in musical terms. The songs range from the amusing ``Words'' to rapturous synagogue themes (with male dancing), and from the Reuven-Danny duets to Hindie Saunders's ``My World,'' lyrically performed by Lynnette Perry. (The rabbi's dutiful daughter politely resists Reuven's attempts at romance.) Mr. Hearn is nowhere more moving than in ``A Woman of Valor,'' a tribute to the gentle Mrs. Saunders (Mimi Turque).

The emotional turning point of ``The Chosen'' occurs when Reb Saunders, who has raised Danny in silence except for their lessons, admits that in his infant son's prodigious feats of memory, he foresaw that Danny would one day move away from the tradition of his fathers. What amounts to an epilogue reveals the paths ultimately taken - and not taken - by Danny and Reuven.

Whatever its remaining problems of structure and form, not to mention its Broadway prospects, ``The Chosen'' can claim an honorable achievement in the humanity with which its differentiated characters and their viewpoints have been set down and the appealing manner in which they are presented under Mitchell Maxwell's direction on the stage of the Second Avenue Theatre. The pictorially massive production was designed by Ben Edwards and lighted by Thomas R. Skelton, with costumes by Ruth Morley. Eric Stern is the musical director of the score, orchestrated by Samuel Matlovsky. Richard Levi choreographed the dance numbers.

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