The Shoemakers | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Shoemakers, Famous Door Theatre Company.

At the center--and heart--of this musical is a family tree: a shoe tree. In Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story, the Polish-Jewish Shuster clan goes back 15 generations and 300 years--and forward, to America circa 1939. There, despite cultural disruption, the family craft of shoe making helps root them.

Famous Door Theatre's premiere is also a family labor of love, adapted by lyricist and lead actor Byrne Piven, directed and composed by his daughter Shira, and coproduced by the Piven Theatre Workshop. What it lacks in drama it almost makes up for in atmosphere. Using story-theater multiple narrators and a backdrop of archival and original film footage, this adaptation captures the telling details of village and family life and of the rituals that link past and present. Like Tevye's wandering clan, the Shusters show that tradition and change need not be at odds. The changes here weigh heaviest on Abba, the father, who is of course the last to leave the old country (and only because the Nazis are closing in).

Shira Piven's whirling staging resembles so many flying Chagalls, and its flowing movement suits her dancelike klezmer score. Blending traditional folk and jazz elements, it's set (sometimes heavily) to lyrics that play like recycled dialogue. Byrne Piven's firmly rooted patriarch, a foxy grandpa, is an uneven mix of solid stagecraft and unearned intensity. Only in the final, moving reunion does Piven find a situation strong enough to equal his fervor. The triumph belongs to the ensemble: their abundant feeling excuses the raw singing.

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