Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Only One Sophie
Illusion Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Newsies, George Bonga: Black Voyageur and The Amish Project


Bonnie Allen, Benjamin Wagner, Bradley Greenwald, and Elizabeth Hawkinson
Photo by Lauren B. Photography
Only One Sophie is Michael Robins' loving tribute to his grandmother, Sophie Simon Robins. Robins, the founder and Executive Producing Director of Illusion Theater, wrote the book and lyrics for this chamber musical and directs its world premiere production at Illusion. The story of sixteen-year-old Sophie's escape from pogroms against the Jews of Poland in 1905, her settlement in Saint Paul, and subsequent life through her passing in 1960 is told as a series of flashbacks and through memories shared by those gathered to observe the Jewish tradition of seven days of mourning, or shiva.

We first meet Michael, played by Bradley Greenwald, in 2005 as he visits Sophie's grave for the first time since 1960, when he was 12 years old. He has returned to Saint Paul for his son's wedding. Through Michael's mind we are transported back to those seven days in 1960, as he, his brother Richard, and sister Pam cling to their images of Sophie as their Grandma. They also wonder about the somber Jewish traditions of mourning, such as covering up all mirrors and sitting on hard benches. Pam, the oldest, rejects the old ways, while Michael and Richard are not quite sure.

Along with Sophie's grandchildren are their mother Linda, who was Sophie's daughter-in-law; Sam, who was Sophie's brother; Sam's wife Clara, who as a young woman was best friends with Sophie; and Oscar, Michael's grandfather and Sophie's husband, though the two had been long separated. Through Linda, Sam, Clara and Oscar, Michael and his siblings learn more about their beloved grandmother as the chain of life stories passes from one generation to the next.

Sophie is an on-stage presence in two guises. Elizabeth Hawkinson plays young Sophie, the girl who is forced to escape Poland. She settles in the Jewish immigrant enclave of Saint Paul's West Side Flats, where she is courted by Oscar, a third generation Jewish-American with an eye for Sophie and an ear for music—he is a professional drummer. Kersten Rodau plays the older Sophie, who pushes Oscar out of their home after he has disappointed her and their children too many times, and has learned to face the challenges of forging a new life. Sophie was always determined to look forward, never back. She held no sentimentality for the life she left behind in Europe. And, yet, she carried with her much of the traditions and beliefs deeply ingrained during her formative years in Poland.

The stories told about Sophie range from momentous—the travails of her walk across Poland dressed as a boy for safety's sake, Oscar's proposal to her, and the breakdown of their marriage—to more gentle memories that furnish a sense of Sophie, rather than her biography, such as teaching young Michael to kosher a chicken or dancing along to tunes on the radio. Throughout is a theme of adapting to loss—both loss of loved ones and loss of traditions as the old ways one by one slip away.

The anecdote-sharing, recovery of long-lost heirlooms, and bickering over the accuracy of memories is often set to Roberta Carlson's melodies, which draw upon traditional Jewish music, with a couple of nods to popular music of the passing decades, including a slow rag and a boogie-woogie. The music is well played by a three-piece band that includes frequent Klezmer clarinet rills. Much of the music is atmospheric, with melodies that feel less than fully developed. Some of the songs that work best, both musically and to advance the play, include "Marry Me," "Sometimes Love Is Not Enough," and "Say the Names," a moving song about keeping loved ones alive in our hearts by speaking aloud their names—a traditional part of Jewish prayer services. "Dancing to the Radio" showcases Sophie's lighthearted side, while lifting the spirits of Linda and her grieving children. "Sophie Simon Took a Walk" is a jaunty tune that tells her immigrant story as a game that children can embrace; later on "1905: Sophie's Story" describes the same journey with far more detail and drama, and making it clear her escape and passage to America was no game.

Bradley Greenwald is one of our region's most reliable actors, and his beautiful baritone is always a thrill to hear. He does strong work here as stand-in for author Robins, especially when capturing the squirrely movement and questioning mind of Michael at age 12. Kersten Rodau is a sturdy Sophie, conveying a blend of hard-earned wisdom and independence with her leanings toward superstition and old world customs. She also sings beautifully, as does Elizabeth Hawkinson, who plays young Sophie. Hawkinson's Sophie is full of spunk and energy, confident that a bright future lies ahead in her new American homeland. The duet "My Life Is My Life" that pairs the young and matured Sophies movingly draws contrast between the different life stages of this woman's life. Hawkinson also plays Michael's sister Pam, pivoting adroitly between an old world and Americanized young Jewish woman.

The remainder of the cast all do fine work. Jay Hornbacher is noteworthy as a Sophie's practical-minded older brother Sam, and Beth Gilleland provides a girlish glow as Sophie's childhood friend Clara who becomes Sam's affectionate sparring partner as his wife in their golden years. Randy Schmeling is charming as the younger Oscar, persuading Sophie to lower her defenses and marry him, but lacks the gravitas one would expect of the older Oscar. Bonni Allen as Linda conveys her tireless efforts, as a gentile, to earn the support and affection of her mother-in-law. Benjamin Wagner brings Richard to life, as the younger brother trying to keep up with his siblings.

Production values in Only One Sophie are modest, but provide the space, sound, and light needed for the play's action and scenes switching off between Saint Paul and Poland. Kate Guentzel's choreography is also on a small scale, which works well to depict how dancing might actually occur among this small group of family members, rather than insert a dance ensemble whose dazzle, as well as numbers, would remove the story from its firm roots.

Some loose ends: At the start, Michael is at Sophie's gravesite to prepare for his son's wedding, but there is nothing about the wedding later on to bring the story full circle. Also, while Sophie's daughter-in-law Linda is a major presence, her son, nicknamed "Cutie," is not there, nor is his absence ever acknowledged. Why would he not be at his own mother's funeral? What was his role as son, husband, and father? Cutie feels conspicuous by his absence. Still, this is a show about memories, and memories can be selective, can pick and choose favorites. It is tenderhearted, sweet, and well played.

While Sophie's courageous journey and strong will are noteworthy, millions of others have similar stories. To say there is “only one Sophie" is true in terms of her unique, transformative role for her family. In our nation of immigrants, there are innumerable "Sophies" who made all the difference to their descendants, with new ones are arriving daily, off boats, airplanes, and overland crossings. It is the aggregation of these "only" individuals that give our nation its rich tapestry of strong families and diverse communities. Only One Sophie is a love note to them all.

The world premiere of Only One Sophie continues through March 5, 2016, at the Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets are $23.00 - 42.00. For tickets call 612- 339-4944 or go to illusiontheater.org.

Book and Lyrics: Michael Robins; Music and Additional Lyrics: Roberta Carlson; Director: Michael Robins; Set Design: Dean Holzman; Lighting Design: Mike Wangen; Costume Design: Clara Cavens; Choreography: Kate Guentzel; Technical Director: Aaron Schoenrock; Stage manager: William Harmon; Production Manager and Prop Design: Sarah Salisbury

Cast: Bonni Allen (Linda), Beth Gilleland (Clara), Bradley Greenwald (Michael), Elizabeth Hawkinson (Young Sophie, Pam), Jay Hornbacher (Sam), Kersten Rodau (Sophie), Randy Schmeling (Oscar), Benjamin Wagner (Richard).

Musicians: Roberta Carlson (piano), Joe Englund (cello), Doug Haining (clarinet).


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