“If everyone was holding hands no one could hold a gun. ” These words reverberated throughout my body during “A Letter to Harvey Milk”, playing at Theater Row on 42nd Street. This new powerful, knock-out musical moved me to tears within the first five minutes and didn’t stop delivering punches until the last note was sung. Based on a short story by Leslea Newman, you don’t dare miss this show, which some might even say is a call to action!
What happens when Harry, a Jewish, retired butcher shop owner stops into the JCC and meets Barbara, an aspiring writing teacher? The two form an unlikely, but strong bond as Barbara gets Harry to write about his life. “Write what you see. Write how you feel”. Theses were some of the writing prompts Harry is given. It is 1986 in San Francisco and in one of his assignments Harry writes a letter to Harvey Milk. Through Harry’s writing entries we discover that Milk used to frequent his butcher shop and despite their different lifestyles, Harry was one of Milk’s biggest fans. But these writing assignments awaken dark latent memories within Harry and he begins to have nightmares. The nightmares get so bad that they “wake” Harry’s wife Frannie from the dead. Frannie represents Harry’s inner psyche and shows the struggles that this man contends with. One day, after class, Harry and Barbara go to a Jewish Deli when all hell breaks loose and the two have a big fight because Barbara is forthright about being a lesbian.
Adam Heller plays Harry, the tender and scared butcher well. He pours out his soul with his performance and we fall in love with him instantly. When he sings, “Frannie’s hands”, an ode to his beloved wife, there is not a dry eye in the house. Julia Knitel plays the young optimistic Barbara with real enthusiasm. Her journey is every bit as harrowing as Harry’s and makes no wonder about why these two souls connect. Heller and Knitel have an unshakable bond which makes them delightful to watch. Adding great comedy is Cheryl Stern, who plays Frannie. Her timing and delivery is genius and yet she has some sincere moments that are poignant as well. Her final scene is unforgettable.
But is this a dated show? Have we come so far since 1986? Whatever your thoughts are, go see this show. Its timely and still has resonance, especially in the wake of today’s political climate. It’s now a day later and I can still feel it tug at my heart strings and social conscience, which is a testament to the strength of the piece. It is no wonder that this play has been extended multiple times. We can only hope it continues to inspire and educate us about our own humanity. It reminds us all that the fight for equal rights is far from over and some could argue that it has only just begun!
A Letter to Harvey Milk plays at the Acorn Theatre at Theater Row, 410 West 42nd St. http://www.lettertoharveymilk.com