In its best moments Love Sick—the opening show of Theater J’s 2019-20 season in its newly renovated space—is a brilliantly woven tapestry of competing forms. The music, written by Ofra Daniel and Lior Ben-Hur, blends mellifluent middle-eastern melodies with the plucky refrains of modern musical comedy. Daniel’s script, adapted from the Hebrew bible’s Song of Songs, is replete with melancholic melodrama dotted with wink-to-the-audience moments and playful choreography.
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Yet, as the 90-minute show progresses into its second half (with no intermission) these moments of wit and levity grow fewer and far between, the audience is faced with swell upon swell of grief and longing, without reprieve.
Daniel performs the central role of Tirza, a crazy or “messhugah” old beggar woman living in the streets of Tel Aviv. Cloaked in layer upon layer of rags and with an expression of wild-eyed glee, Tirza, the “poet of love,” indulges a group of romance-hungry women who have gathered beneath the enormous “tree of life” that anchors the set to hear her spin the tale of her long lost love. As the rags are stripped away, a younger Tirza emerges—stunning in a white wedding dress but silently suffocating in a loveless marriage to the local fishmonger (Sasha Olinick). When a secret admirer begins to send her love poetry, Tirza falls deeper and deeper under the stranger’s spell, until her desire for the lover she has never seen compels her—naked and desperate—to flee Jerusalem on foot for Tel Aviv.
Daniel is positively hypnotic as Tirza. The Israeli-born performer is stunning and statuesque, with expressive dark eyes and a mane of dark hair falling past her back. With a strong, plaintive voice, dancer’s physique and a singularly self-possessed air, Daniel almost dares you to look away. As layers of clothing continue to come off, and Tirza ripens with sexual awakening, Daniel’s sensual, seductive dances caused a few of the more buttoned-up audience members to squirm in their seats.
Love Sick closes September 29, 2019. Details and tickets
But, for all of her magnetism, the show’s relentless spotlight on Tirza casts too long a shadow on its other characters. Olinick, as Tirza’s reserved but faithful husband, regales the audience with a beautiful baritone voice (“Fish Song”) and glimpses of a far more complex, heart-wrenchingly sympathetic, character that we never get the chance to meet.
The honeyed-voice of Tirza’s secret lover (Ali Paris), descending upon the audience from the upper boughs of the tree of heaven also leaves the audience wanting more. Paris, an internationally-acclaimed musician who has performed with Alicia Keys and Quincy Jones, plays several instruments throughout–including the Qanun, a 76-string 14th century instrument akin to a deeper-toned harp—as part of a staggeringly-talented orchestra boheme.
The four-member chorus of Jerusalem Women (Sarah Corey, Sarah Laughland, Kara-Tameika Watkins, and Kanysha Williams) further represent the show’s gross underuse of talent. Each of the four shone in (all too brief) full-throated vocal solos and moments of comic wit that brought levity to Tirza’s desperation, while also coming together seamlessly as an ensemble. If only some of the joy these women bring to the show’s first half, urging Tirza to “make your home as happy as your mama did,” with a kicky conga-line beat, could be mirrored in the second.
Love Sick, written and adapted by Ofra Daniel. Music by Ofra Daniel and Lior Ben-Hur. Director Christopher Renshaw. Choreographer Matt Cole. Music Director Ali Paris. Set Designer Misha Kachman. Costume Design Kelsey Hunt. Lighting Design Andrew R. Cissna. Sound Design Brendan Aanes. Featuring Manny Arciniega, Sarah Corey, Ofra Daniel, Duff Davis, John Tyler Garner, Kendell Hollywood, Jason Labrador, Sasha Olinick, Sarah Laughland, Ali Paris, Cristian Perez, Benjamin Rikhoff, Kara-Tameika Watkins, Mila Weiss and Kanysha Williams and Mila Weiss. Reviewed by Meaghan Hannan Davant.