Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Both Johnson and Schmeling were in matches labeled "The Fight of the Century": Johnson against the "Great White Hope" challenger Jeff Jeffries and Schmeling to regain his title against a new World Champion, Joe Louis. As a black man, the fact that Louis could hold this title was the direct result of the barrier broken by Johnson, drawing a powerful link between these two fine plays.
Dancing with Giants is, however, about more than Max Schmeling and more than boxing. It is foremost about his Jewish manager, Joe Jacobs, whom Schmeling nicknamed "Yussel the Muscle"Yussel, the Yiddish version of Joseph, and muscle, an ironic sobriquet, given Joe's small, unprepossessing stature. The two men had a unique friendship that endured in spite of extreme antisemitism under the Nazis. Joe Jacobs is really the heart of Dancing with Giants. He is shown as an eternal optimist who believes that by raising people's spirits and through sheer will, he could make the impossible happen, even among some of the most powerful men on earth. He himself declares, "I may be small, but I dance with giants."
Joe Jacobs is a smart wheeler-dealer who used his gifts for song, dance, cracking a joke, and fast-talking business savvy to rise from the son of a German-Jewish immigrant to the top among New York fight promoters in the 1920s and 1930s. His dapper attire and ever-present Cuban cigar make up for his diminutive stature. In that era, New York City is the world epicenter of professional boxing. When Max Schmeling, as the German champ, arrives in New York in 1928 to pursue the world championship, he faces such rabid anti-German sentiment that he cannot even safely leave his steamship. Jacobs comes aboard, ingratiates himself to Schmeling and winds up being the German boxer's manager. He lines up a fight in Yankee Stadium against then-champion Jack Sharkey, and when Schmeling is knocked down by a below-the-belt punch, Joe cries foul. Joe grabs the microphone and stirs up the crowd to chant with him "We wuz robbed," coining a phrase still in use today. The referee is forced to disqualify Sharkey and make Schmeling the new World Heavyweight Champion.
Schmeling returns to Germany, Joe in tow, but Germany has begun shifting in dark directions as Hitler and the Nazi party rise to power. Schmeling is embraced by Hitler and is willing to tolerate his Jewish manager, in spite of his propagandist Joseph Goebbels's strenuous objections. Hitler is not depicted in the play, except as a garbled voice over phone and radio lines, but Goebbels is very much a presence, charming in his way until it becomes clear where his agenda leads. Schmeling, stoic by nature, somewhat enjoys his celebrity and the belief that he is helping his fatherland, but he remains loyal to Joe. Joe believes that together, he and Schmeling might get through to the Nazi powers and change the course of history. And the course of history is changed with two matches Joe arranges between Max Schmeling and Joe Louis, but not in the way Joe had hoped. Even the irrepressible optimist, Joe "Yussel the Muscle" Jacobs, cannot stare down the Nazi march to world domination and annihilation of Jews and other despised classes.
Dancing with Giants is a character study of the remarkable, little known Joe Jacobs, as well as an examination of the way in which celebrity and manufactured images are used to sway public opinion, about the possibilities of friendship and honor to overcome forces of hatred, as well as a fascinating window into the world boxing stage in the 1930s. It is one thing morean opportunity for an all-out dazzling star performance.
That performance comes from Tovah Feldshuh, the playwright's sister, as Joe Jacobs. Ms. Feldshuh has a long resume on the New York stage that includes four Tony nominations (her first for originating the role of Yentl, before Barbra Streisand claimed the property and the role for the hit movie). She also has roots in Minnesota, having spent time at the University of Minnesota and Guthrie Theatre early in her career. Playwright Feldshuh, who also directs this production, states that he did not write the part of Joe Jacobs to be played by a woman, let alone his own sister. However, after completing it, he pondered who in the universe of actors might be right for the part, who had the talent and the presence to bring Yussel to lifeand a flash of light brought his sister to mind. Some might call it nepotism, but not those who see Ms. Feldshuh on stage as Joe Jacobs, moving with the lupine grace of a song-and-dance man, slapping out the brash comedy, just self-effacing enough to allow us to love him, and establishing before our eyes this strange, magnetic man's unstoppable will. It is a stellar performance.
Fortunately, the rest of the cast are excellent, and hold their own quite well against Ms. Feldshuh's powerhouse turn. Sam Bardwell captures Max Schmeling's serious nature, his belief that boxing is an art, and his determination to pursue that art without sacrificing his standards or virtue. His loyalty to Joe and the friendship he develops with Joe Louis, both have the ring of authenticity. He portrays Max's vulnerability through the one way in which he can be hurt: through his wife, a weakness on which Goebbels capitalizes. Bardwell also has the handsome visage to easily serve as the Nazi's idealized man. James Cunningham is splendid as Goebbels, ingratiating himself with charm, making light of any malice intended by the Nazis, and gradually revealing the true colors and treachery within. Ricky Morisseau has the smallest part as Joe Louis, but carries the role persuasively.
The design team for Dancing with Giants have done an excellent job of creating a fluid set, with frequent use of projections to establish place, period costumes, evocative lighting, and crisply delivered sound. Kudos go especially to Ms. Feldshuh's hair stylist, Laura Adams, and to Foster Johns as dialect coach, with assistance from Bradley Greenwald on the German dialects. The projections include frequent use of headlines to move the narrative forward through history, a device which in other plays could seem like a cheap shortcut, but in this case, with so much historical backstory, and so much narrative carried in every scene, it works well as a way of telling this compelling story.
A musical sequence accompanied by cartoon projections, a fantasy shared by Schmeling and Jacobs, is well devised to reveal the political realities and risks the two men face as they stand up to Goebbels demands. With witty choreography by Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan, it also manages to be highly entertaining without diminishing the gravitas of the storyline. How did playwright/director Feldshuh manage that? By the way, the music in that scene was composed by one of David Feldshuh's sons, Noah, and the cartoons drawn by his other son, Zach. Maybe there is some nepotism afoot after all, but every bit of it is top quality.
With so many levels of meaning packed into this play, a well-crafted script, and a true star performance by Tovah Feldshuh, Dancing with Giants is a must-see event. Those fortunate enough to see it during this brief run are unlikely to ever forget it. Like Dancing with Giants, David Feldshuh's earlier play Miss Evers' Boys was developed at the Illusion Theater. That one went on to a successful Off-Broadway run, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and became an Emmy Award-winning HBO film. There are no sure things in show business, but with good reason to believe Dancing with Giants will similarly go on to larger platforms, the opportunity to see it now is a gift to Twin Cities theater lovers.
Dancing with Giants, through February 24, 2018, at the Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $25.00 - $48.00. For tickets call 612-339-4944 or visit illusiontheater.org.
Writer and Director: David Feldshuh; Set Design: Dean Holzman; Lighting Design: Mike Grogan; Costume Design: Barb Portinga; Sound Design: Don Tindall; Properties Design: Sarah Salisbury; Video Projections: Jon Carlson and Michael Robbins; Cartoon Projections: Zach Feldshuh; "Song of the Low Blow Champion" composed by: Noah Feldshuh; Movement Choreography: Brian Sostek and Megan McClelland; Dialect Coach: Foster Johns; German Dialect Coach: Bradley Greenwald; Dramaturg: Erin Stoneking; Technical Director: Aaron Schoenrock; Stage Manager: Aaron P. Wheeler; Producers: Bonnie Morris and Michael Robins.
Cast: Sam Bardwell (Max Schmeling ), James Cunningham (Joseph Goebbels), Tovah Feldshuh (Joe "Yussel-the-Muscle" Jacobs), Ricky Morisseau (Joe Louis). Vocalists: Gary Briggle ("The Prize") and Dora Dolphin ("Zol Zayn").