Jerry Herman’s first Broadway musical, “Milk and Honey” (1961), for which he wrote the music and lyrics with a book by Don Appell, is being revived in a lovely concert-style staging this week (through February 5) as part of the York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti series. An appealing cast does a formidable job in capturing the spirit of the show reflecting the enthusiasm for the then 13-year-old state of Israel. It also is a tender love story against the backdrop of visiting Americans.
Mark Delavan treats us with a strong voice and excellent acting in the role of Phil Arkin, who is estranged from his wife and visiting his daughter living in Israel with her partner. Phil is romantically smitten when he meets Ruth Stein, part of a tour group and exquisitely portrayed by Anne Runolfsson, who acts and sings beguilingly. The nagging problem is that Phil doesn’t tell Ruth that he is married, and when she learns the truth she is not the type who can blithely live under that shadow even though she has fallen deeply in love with Phil.
The musical is enlivened by humor, much of it coming from the performance by Alix Korey as Clara Weiss, a widow who is part of the tour group. Clara tries to cement the romance between Phil and Ruth, and is desperate to find a new husband for herself to replace her late beloved Hymie. She also wants to find husbands for other widows in the group. (Molly Picon played the role in the original production.) Korey is a delight, touching both the comic aspects of husband-hunting and the emotional element as well. She makes the most of the number “Chin Up, Ladies” which she sings with the widows, and also impresses with her liberating solo “Hymn to Hymie.”
Herman wrote a tuneful score. Foremost is the title song “Milk and Honey.” Other likable numbers include “Shalom,” “I Will Follow You,” “That Was Yesterday” “Let’s Not Waste a Moment,” “There’s No Reason in the World” and “As Simple as That.” Supporting characters also add sparkle in word and song.
Musicals in Mufti presentations are bare-bones affairs with minimal scenery and props. The audience on opening night broke into applause when a group of tied together music stands labeled “Sheep” were pulled across the stage. Also, instead of an orchestra, the score is played with élan by conductor-pianist and musical director Jeffrey Saver. The show has been directed by Michael Unger, with choreography by Yehuda Hyman.
There is an underling sad note related to the musical when viewed from the present perspective. “Milk and Honey” abounds with the enthusiasm of the newly burgeoning Israel and its ideals. One can still feel and enjoy that enthusiasm, but one can also view the musical against a background of regret at the ensuing wars and the persistent difficulties over the years in achieving peace between Israel and Palestinians. At the York Theatre Company at St. Peters, 54th Street and Lexington Avenue. Phone: 212-935-5820. Reviewed January 30, 2017.