PITTSFIELD — “What can you take with you when you can’t take anything with you?’’ asks a Hungarian-Jewish girl named Rebecca at the start of “The Golem of Havana.’’ She then supplies the answer to that riddle: “Only your stories.’’
Whatever else can be said about this ambitious but uneven new musical, it’s not lacking in that department.
Now receiving its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company, “The Golem of Havana’’ is an eventful journey, loaded with plot twists and personal histories that can’t be outrun. It culminates in a character-defining choice that confronts Rebecca and her parents as the convulsions of the Cuban Revolution hit home in a very direct way.
The musical is marred by unwieldy patches and moments of over-the-top excess, yet its audacious energy sustains your interest. Creative risk-taking and a determination to craft a new story and tell it with gusto are preferable to the play-it-safe-then-head-to-the-bank approach of the jukebox musicals and movie adaptations that have come to dominate musical theater. Of course, adding new works to the repertory is the explicit goal of Barrington Stage’s Musical Theatre Lab, which is headed by celebrated composer William Finn. “The Golem of Havana’’ is the 10th world premiere musical incubated by Finn & Co.
A lot is thrown at the wall by “Golem’’ composer Salomon Lerner, lyricist Len Schiff, and book writer Michel Hausmann, who also directs. Not all of it sticks. While the score certainly has its strengths, including the title number, the music often takes a back seat to the action and needs to be more fully developed so that songs don’t fly by in an eye blink. The action, too, would benefit from more focus; at present, the show feels a bit scattered.
An air of crisis suffuses “The Golem of Havana’’ almost from the start. It’s December 1958 in Havana, Cuba, and Fidel Castro’s rebels are intensifying their insurgency against the government led by president Fulgencio Batista, a dictator who is responding with a brutal crackdown.
Steadily drawn into this maelstrom are the immigrant Frankel family: teenaged Rebecca (Julie Benko), a budding artist hard at work on a comic book that features a golem, the magical figure from Jewish folklore, whose presence she imagines during moments of crisis; her father, Pinchas (Gordon Stanley), a better tailor than he is a businessman, seemingly prone to extending unlimited credit to customers; and her mother, Yutka (Jacqueline Antaramian). Yutka is haunted by her error in judgment when the Nazis closed in on their Hungarian village in 1944, which led to a tragic fate for her sister. Her bitterness spills out in a song titled “Nothing in Your Hands,’’ in which she tells Rebecca: “The world is not your friend/No one holds you when it’s scary/No one saves you in the end.’’
One of Pinchas’s customers is a suave gent named Arturo (Danny Bolero), who works as an adviser to Batista’s military and who, in “Gotta Take a Chance,’’ exhorts the tailor to seize his share of Cuba’s economic pie. Pretty soon, the tailor is measuring Batista himself (Felipe Gorostiza), and envisioning prosperity in the family’s future. But a conflict is brewing on the homefront that will test the conscience and principles of him and Yutka. Their maid, Maria (Rheaume Crenshaw), has a firebrand son, Teo (Ronald Alexander Peet) who has enlisted in the rebel army. Romance begins to flicker between Teo and Rebecca, but when there is an explosion at a police station and Arturo begins sniffing around the Frankels’ home, the family faces a life-or-death dilemma.
In short, there are volatile ingredients aplenty, and “The Golem of Havana’’ stirs them vigorously. Does all this drama tip over into melodrama? Yes, it does. But it’s better for an artistic team’s reach to exceed its grasp than not to reach at all, and there’s an inherent value to new works. The alternative for lovers of musical theater is yet another tour of “Jersey Boys.’’