Given the exuberance of the Jewish Festival of Freedom, along with its emphasis on transmitting the Jewish heritage to the next generation, perhaps no holiday is better suited than Passover to being turned into a children’s musical. Get ready, then, for “Shlemiel Crooks,” a new musical by the Poppyseed Players based on two award-winning children’s books by Anna Olswanger.
Well received at its premiere last April, “Shlemiel Crooks” returns this year with the idea of becoming an annual tradition, like the same company’s Purim and Chanukah musicals, which have been performed for the last two decades. Clay Zambo and Scott Ethier wrote the songs; the script is by Bob Kolsby and Sean Hartley. The musical will be presented this Sunday morning for one performance only at Merkin Concert Hall.
Directed by Wendy Gross Baker, “Shlemiel Crooks” is the tale of two bumbling would-be thieves (Martin Landry and Scott Cole) who, although egged on by the irrepressible ghost of Pharaoh (David Arthur), are foiled by a boy (Augie Padua) his sister (Elena Nisonoff), and a talking dog (Jason Robinson) in their attempts to steal a cache of Holy Land Passover wine from a liquor store.
“Shlemiel Crooks” is inspired by Olswanger’s 2005 book of the same name, illustrated by Paula Goodman Koz, which spun a lively tale from an actual 1919 Yiddish newspaper article about an attempted robbery from the author’s great-grandfather’s kosher liquor store in St. Louis; it was a Sidney Taylor Honor Book, Koret International Jewish Book Award Finalist, and PJ Library selection.
Hartley, who is the artistic director of the company, combined that narrative with another story, “Chicken Bone Man,” written by Olswanger from the standpoint of her father’s childhood pet, Jerry the Dog, who sympathized with his owner’s desire to become a blues piano player despite parental pressure to play classical music.
Olswanger, who grew up in Memphis, moved to New York in the late 1990s and found work as a literary agent, mainly representing authors of children’s books. In doing genealogical research, she stumbled on the Yiddish newspaper article, and she resolved to write about her own family history in a way that would appeal to children. She also wanted to make use of the three dozen piano music compositions that her father, Berl, left behind. Her latest book, “Greenhorn,” slated for publication next month, is geared to middle-school readers; it centers on a young Holocaust survivor who cannot be separated from a box.
In an interview, Olswanger told The Jewish Week that Passover lends itself to children’s musical treatment because it is such an upbeat holiday. “It has a quintessentially happy ending,” she said. “You suffer, you get redemption, and you go to the Promised Land.” She was especially pleased, she said, by the director’s decision to have the children’s chorus, drawn from students at the Lucy Moses School of the Kaufman Center (which houses the Merkin Concert Hall), function as the policemen who arrest the two would-be thieves.
“Shlemiel Crooks” will be performed on Sunday, April 1, at 11 a.m. at Merkin Concert Hall, 129 West 67th St. For tickets, $20, visit tickets.kaufman-center.org or call the box office at (212) 501-3330.