Updated: Jun 16, 2022
Waterloo East Theatre is home to a European premiere this month as A Letter To Harvey Milk – The Musical begins a limited season there. First appearing at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2012m it started its journey to off-Broadway success and now, 10 years later, it’s finally the turn of UK audiences to fall in love with this heartfelt story.
A Letter To Harvey Milk tells the story of Harry, a retired Kosher butcher and widower, who takes up a writing class where he is challenged to write a letter to someone deceased. After choosing Harvey Milk, it unlocks repressed feelings and memories as the story unfolds in both the past and the present, uncovering surprising revelations.
Barry James leads the production, giving a commanding and sensitive performance as Harry. Immediately loveable, he portrays the character getting to grips with his past and inner demons beautifully in what at times is an understated but always captivating performance. Carol Ball plays the ghost of Harrys dead wife Frannie – communicating through Harrys imagination, she is fantastically brash, always disapproving with the ability to tell you what she is thinking with one look on her face. In a mostly comedic performance, Carol manages to bring depth to a role that could have otherwise been one-note.
Josselyn Ryder shines on stage as Barbara Katsef, the young teacher who forges an unlikely relationship with Harry as they bond over writing and their love of Harvey Milk. Having to go on a difficult character journey within herself, Josselyn is an absolute standout on the stage. Despite being in the title, the character of Harvey Milk only makes fleeting appearances. He is played by Joshua Anthony-Jones lighting up the stage as the legendary character. The fantastic cast are completed by Christopher Dodd, Rebecca Levy and Harry Winchester.
Written by Laura L. Kramer, Jerry James, Ellen M. Schwartz and Cheryl Stern, A Letter To Harvey Milk explores some difficult themes. Set in 1986, 8 years after Harveys death, it not only deals with the impact of Harveys legacy and how it helped pave the way for people to be more open with their sexuality, but it also deals with religious attitudes towards sexuality. Barbara talks about the homophobia she experiences from her own family, with Frannie showcasing her own ignorance towards it (though it does give us the brilliant line “Be fruitful, not a fruit”) and even Harry struggling to accept Barbara for how unashamedly open she is about her sexuality. While these sadly were a sign of the times, its themes of homophobia and anti-semitism are sadly all too prevalent still. With that in mind, this can make a tough watch but that is exactly why stories like this are so important to tell.
The songs sound immediately familiar – easy on the ear with some witty lyrics to beat. Highlights include Frannie’s pretty terribly bigoted but admittedly fun ‘What A Shanda’, the gorgeous opening of ‘Too Old For This’ and Barbara’s ‘Love Is A Woman’. With musical direction from Olivia Zacharia, they are a pleasant highlight of the show.
Directed by Gerald Armin, the founder an Artistic Director of Waterloo East Theatre, the stage is transformed with screens for cast members to stand behind, lurking in the shadows and making it clear they are not in the physical world with Harry and Barbara. The action is played out with great use of choreography, though it does feature the most sudden and unexpected interval you are likely to see… with the action picking up mid-scene in act 2.
Perhaps not the show I was expecting to see, I fell in love with A Letter To Harvey Milk. Unlike any other show that is out there, it talks about important themes that are close to my own heart, ensuring there are plenty of laughs to be had, but ultimately an important message is told, reflecting on some of the atrocities of our own history, including a particularly harrowing moment that comes towards the shows climax. Wonderfully acted by a truly talented cast, this was a truly lovely evening at a fantastic little theatre. A Letter To Harvey Milk is full of sentiment and significance to ensure you come out of there with a heart that is both heavy and full. At its heart, this is a show about human connection and the ability for love transcending generations. If good theatre has the ability to make you feel, this is a testament to how it is done flawlessly.
A Letter To Harvey Milk – The Musical is playing at Waterloo East Theatre until July 3rd. Tickets from www.waterlooeast.co.uk
Photos by Gareth McLeod