A Letter to Harvey Milk is a slightly flawed gem of a musical, giving voice to some little seen characters. The work is based on a Lesléa Newman’s short story which follows mildly eccentric but loving Jewish characters as they discover and embrace their identities as lesbians. In this case the seeker is Barbara, a Connecticut transplant earning a little extra money by teaching a writing class at the JCC in San Francisco. Her unexpected partner in self exploration is Harry, a widowed retired butcher who finds himself drawn to her classroom and her energy. What binds them is the titular letter that Harry composes as an assignment. The honest love and sincere appreciation expressed to his activist friend pulls Barbara into Harry’s story. She revels in the company of someone who is seemingly so comfortable with his choices. Their developing friendship takes them both to unexpected places.
The book by by Jerry James, Ellen M. Schwartz, Cheryl Stern and Laura I. Kramer provides enough detail to follow both Harry’s and Barbara’s struggles with love and loneliness. Throughout are two culturally significant threads about homosexuality and Judaism through time and in context. There are a few small gaps in logic such as how Barbara can be making any money with only one student, but those are easy to set aside. What doesn’t come through with sufficient clarity is the critical figure of Harvey Milk. He is painted in such broad strokes, those unfamiliar with his ground-breaking achievements will see a badly dressed kook with terrible eating habits. Perhaps the script suffered from too many cooks. Lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz work better to move the story along and provide atmosphere. Music by Laura I. Kramer isn’t very memorable, but it does suit the words, particularly the Yankee Doodle Dandy treatment of some of Harvey’s most famous speeches.
Generally, the women in the cast outshine the men. Julia Knitel — who previously starred as Carole King in the touring company of Beautiful — has a soothing voice and magnificent articulation as she shapes Barbara’s story. As Frannie, Harry’s deceased wife who is by his side for the journey, co-lyricist Cheryl Stern is the comic relief, delivering Elaine Stritch-style patter and emphasis. And in her one big number, Aury Krebs is a dream. Michael Bartoli captures Harvey Milk’s patterns and mannerisms, but as described earlier, he isn’t given enough to work with. Supporting players Jeremy Greenbaum and CJ Pawlikowski do a fine job playing multiple roles. The weak link is Adam Heller who was off key as a singer and lacked sufficient variation as an actor. He has extensive Broadway experience, so perhaps it was just an off night.
Evan Pappas’s staging is clever, especially in the more intimate moments. The charming set by David L. Arsenault captures the feel of the Castro district of San Francisco complete with muted colors and a big Bay window. The orchestra, under the direction of Jeffrey Lodin, is perched on a balcony above so they are in view and adding to the ambiance. The costumes by Debbie Hobson are pitch-perfect, notably Barbara’s anklets and sweater vest and Frannie’s tidy suit. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting effectively changes color palette to the match the mood of each scene.
While A Little to Harvey Milk is still at a “great potential” stage of development, it is already a genuine crowd pleaser (for the right crowd) and impressive bang for the buck. Struggling with shame and the need for self-truth resonants even with those who are straight and/or gentile. It runs through May 13, 2018 at the Acorn, part of Theater Row. Tickets are $79 – $99 and can be purchased at Telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200.