Talmudic and Confucian Chaos. THEATER: REVIEW
Chu Chem Musical by Ted Allan (book), Mitch Leigh (music), Jim Haines and Jack Wohl (lyrics). Directed by Albert Marre. Starring Mark Zeller, Emily Zacharias. `CHU CHEM,'' at the Ritz Theatre, is an amiable little cross-cultural caper set in China ``some 600 years ago'' and inspired by historical events. Billed as ``the first Chinese-Jewish musical,'' it has transferred to Broadway following a successful Off Broadway run at the Jewish Repertory Theatre.
According to Ted Allan's playful libretto, ``Chu Chem'' concerns a group of Jews whose search for the Lost Tribe results in ``a mixture of Talmudic and Confucian chaos.'' For most of the long first act, it's a case of confusion worse-confounded as Chu Chem (Mark Zeller) pursues his goal while daughter Lotte (Emily Zacharias), an early feminist, campaigns for the unbinding of women's feet, a concubines' union, and other liberationist causes.
Lotte also falls in love with the local Prince, whose magnanimous concessions eventually win her hand, her heart, and her papa's blessing (Kevin Gray, whom I saw as the prince, has been replaced by Thom Sesma, who originated the role Off Broadway). The romantic and anthropological developments proceed at a relaxed pace, periodically interrupted by song and dance numbers for which Mitch Leigh has composed the Oriental-esque music to accompany lyrics by Jim Haines and Jack Wohl. Act I opens with ``Orient Yourself''; Act II with ``Re-Orient Yourself.'' Along the way, the hospitable Chinese reveal that their principal industry is the manufacture and sale of peace treaties, while their method of warfare is to overwhelm the enemy with noise.
``Chu Chem'' occasionally risks carrying its mock naivet'e beyond the boundaries of Broadway fancy. But the performance staged by Albert Marre is so good-natured that only a Grinch would enter a dissenting gripe. With many a shrug and gesticulation, Mr. Zeller meets all the demands of the traditional Jewish comic philosopher as he seeks to understand his far-from-inscrutable hosts. Ms. Zacharias and Mr. Gray were an attractive and vocally well-matched pair of leads, whether challenging each other with ``You'll Have to Change'' or delivering the score's more romantic ditties. Irving Burton bustles energetically as the prime searcher for the Lost Tribe; Chev Rodgers blusters comically as Gov. Hong Ho, a villain bound to be foiled. The Asian-American supporting cast makes a winning case for rapprochement.
Whether or not ``Chu Chem'' advances the cause of Broadway art and commerce, it will certainly do no harm to American-Jewish-Chinese relations. The modest extravaganza was designed by Robert Mitchell (scenery), Kenneth M. Yount (costumes), and Jason Sturm (lighting). Musical director-keyboardist Don Jones conducts the accompanying Chu Chem Band of keyboards, synthesizers, and electric bass.
Playbill footnote: ``It is historically accurate that a group of Jews did come to Kai-Feng in China, as well as to a number of other towns. Scholarly argument exists as to the exact date of their arrival: Most agree they arrived before 1000 A.D. In any event, there do exist relics of a Kai-Feng synagogue erected in 1163 A.D. at the intersection of Earth-Market Character Street and Firegod Shrine Street.''