by Cynthia Citron
Can you imagine seeing the name “Melvyn Kaplofkis” up in lights on Broadway? Well, neither could he. So he changed it to “Mel King” and became “The King of Brooklyn.” But the Jewish stand-up comic in this one-man show is actually named Danny DiTorrice and he tells his story in a new play called “Forever Brooklyn.”
It isn’t really his own story, though. It’s a story concocted and directed by Mark Wesley Curran, an Episcopalian from an Irish-American family who was captivated in his youth by the culture and music of the Jewish and Italian families who lived in his neighborhood.
And so “Forever Brooklyn,” his first musical comedy, begins with a clarinet solo, klezmer style, rendered by “Melvyn Kaplofkis”. After which Melvyn digs right in to the introduction of his family, which he presents in each of their distinct voices. There is Jacob, his father, owner of a local record shop, who tells him “you earn respect if you work for it,” his mother Mamala, who rules the household with an iron tongue, (“a little of her goes a long way,” Melvyn says), and two sisters, Franny and Zoey, one with a negative personality and the other with a positive one: the Yin and Yang of the Kaplofkis family. All of them, naturally, are appalled by his Big Dream to be a Big Star in Show Business. (All of them except Zoey, of course.)
He begins his career in the living room, where he entertains the family, and in the classroom, where he makes the other students laugh. But, he confesses, he never really feels that he belongs. It’s the “conflict of assimilation” that makes him feel “torn between two worlds.”
To show his affection for his world of Brooklyn, he sings a parody of a song of Barbra Streisand’s: “On A Clear Day You Can See Canarsie”, and to celebrate his Jewish culture and traditions he sings “Hava Negila”, “Ose Shalom” and a parody of the song from “Fiddler on the Roof”: “Tradition”, which he sings as “Sedition”.
Soon two important men enter his life: Big Brucey, a radio disc jockey and talk show host who “discovers” him and brings him to public attention, and Vinnie Scarmucci, a mobster who hires him as a bagman to collect “protection money” from the local store-owners. (Vinnie, according to Melvyn is “like most Italian mobsters, built like a fire hydrant.”)
Big Brucey arranges Melvyn’s first gigs at the fancy resorts in the Catskills’ Borscht Belt, and from there he begins his climb to stardom and success. To say nothing of the money!
The high point in his career comes, however, when he is booked to appear on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” And following that is a series of photo-shopped magazine covers featuring his smiling face and photos of him with such luminaries as Elizabeth Taylor, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and the Kennedys.
But still, he feels a sense of “emptiness” within himself. A feeling of “striving, but never arriving.” Until one day he meets a Korean girl named Mai Lin, who inspires him to sing, in a parody of the song “Maria” from “West Side Story”, “Korea: I Just Met A Girl from Korea…” And he recognizes, at long last, that “Happiness is an inside job.”
Although Danny DiTorrice has charm, a pleasant singing voice, and a legitimate Brooklyn accent, the play is badly misidentified as a “musical comedy”. The music is limited to the few short parodies of other songs and even shorter bits from traditional songs and hymns sung in Hebrew.
As for the “comedy”, there aren’t any laugh-out-loud moments. Or even polite giggles. “Forever Broadway” isn’t “Yentl” and it isn’t “Annie Hall”. It is, as they might say in Yiddish, “a mixed-driddle”. Relabeling it a “coming-of-age drama” would certainly help.
“Forever Brooklyn” can be seen at the Whitefire Theatre, 13500 W. Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, every Saturday at 7:30 p.m. through February 9. For reservations, call (800) 838-3006 or online at https:/www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3613939.