The Borscht Belt comes to wine country with the Sonoma Arts Live presentation of Saturday Night at Grossinger’s. The musical with book and lyrics by Stephen Cole and music by Claibe Richardson runs in Sonoma through May 8. It’s co-directed by Larry Williams and SAL Artistic Director Jaime Weiser Love.
The Borscht Belt is an affectionate term used to describe the area in New York’s Catskill Mountains that hosted hundreds of resorts that catered to the Jewish community. Some of the world’s greatest entertainers either got their start there or appeared in their heyday to appreciative audiences. The likes of Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Henny Youngman and Mel Brooks all put in time in the Catskills.
Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel was one of the largest and was the inspiration for the resort in the film Dirty Dancing. Cole tries to give the resort and the driving force behind it their due.
The show opens as if the audience was the audience for a Grossinger’s show in the 1960’s. Tummler (entertainer) Sheldon Seltzer (co-director Larry Williams) welcomes the crowd with a few era-appropriate jokes before he’s informed that the evenings main attractions – Judy Garland, The Nicholas Brothers, and Alan King – are stuck in a snow drift. Well, the show must go on so the entire Grossinger family is enlisted to tell the story of how the resort came to be.
There’s Papa (Dan Schwager) who seems to thrive on telling his daughter Jennie (Daniela Innocenti Beem) “No!” in triplicate to any of her ideas about building a resort; Jennie’s long-suffering but loving husband Harry (David Shirk), and their two children, Elaine (HarrietePearl Fugitt) and Paul (Tommy Lassiter).
Song and dance tell Grossinger’s story from its beginnings as a failed farm turned boarding house to its time as the Queen of the resorts but the “chapters” are uneven and the script peters out by the end.
Beem is in her element here as the brassy and driven Jennie and delivers her usual powerhouse vocals. Williams had the audience in his hands as the resort’s roving entertainer who not-so-secretly pines for Jenny. The heavy lifting in the dance department was done by the youthful Fugitt and Lassiter who also contributed some nice vocal work.
That vocal work was occasionally drowned out by Sherill Peterson’s six-piece on-stage band which is a problem when most of the story is told in song. The songs vary from the cleverly comic to the schmaltzy.
Though it could use a tighter script, SAL’s Saturday Night at Grossinger’s is an affectionate look at a by-gone era of American entertainment.
‘Saturday Night at Grossinger’s’ runs through May 8 at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St., Sonoma. Thurs–Sat, 7:30pm; Sun, 2pm. $25–$42. 866.710.8942. sonomaartslive.org. Proof of vaccination or a negative test with ID required to attend. Masking is optional.
Photos by Miller Oberlin
This review originally appeared in an edited version in the North Bay Bohemian and Pacific Sun.