A Letter to Harvey Milk - The Musical

There has been much said in books and films about the life and times of Harvey Milk. The title character in this production, by Waterloo East Theatre, takes a step back. Instead this show puts a couple of fictional characters, whose lives were touched by the well-known public official, at the focus. Namely, a kosher butcher called Harry and a young woman who helps him discover a talent for writing.

a small but mighty musical

Both characters have been deeply affected by the assassination of Harvey some eight years prior, though only one of them had any direct contact with him while he was alive.

This is the European premier of the show and there have been a few changes in order to accommodate the stage at Waterloo East Theatre, particularly the reduction of the orchestra to a keyboard and flute.

The cast is led by the extraordinary Barry James as Harry. Barry encompasses the role so magnificently that it is impossible to tell where the actor ends and Harry begins; his mannerisms and expressions seem so at home within the character. The writing teacher Barbara Katsef is played by Josselyn Ryder and she shines in this performance. Her singing voice is a pure delight to listen to throughout the soaring melodies of the score. Whereas some other characters occasionally struggled to be heard over the instruments, Josselyn weaved a spell over the whole audience with her song. Her first scene where she encourages Harry to write what he sees shows off the great chemistry between the two. There is a third character who is also on-stage throughout and that is Harry’s deceased wife Frannie - played by Carol Bell. Carol brought a wonderful humour to the role, much needed in a play that went to some dark places. Her energy matched that of her on-stage husband and you really felt that they were a married couple deeply in love, despite their constant bickering before her passing.

We do see Harvey Milk occasionally in flashbacks and a fine performance by Joshua Anthony Jones. Christopher Dodd, Harry Winchester and Rebecca Levy (who also plays the flute when offstage in the musical numbers) are great supporting members of the cast in various roles, although they all seem to be under-used - as this piece is essentially a three-hander.

At the interval I had my concerns as to where this musical was headed. It all seemed a bit vague at that point. I later found out that the original show was ninety minutes through without an interval and I can see that format making more sense in the overall narrative. The second half did give us a story, and explained some of the more questionable actions of our lead characters in a sombre and hard-hitting way. It packed a fine punch but it all seemed to come a little too late.

Gerald Armin, director, has done a fine job of transferring this to the Waterloo East Theatre stage and the use of gauze throughout the dreams and flashback sequences works well without taking up too much space.

Laura I Kramer and Jerry James have created a small but mighty musical using the short story originally penned by Lesléa Newman. One of the stand-out lyrics for me felt particularly poignant with current events in America: "If enough of us hold hands, no-one can hold a gun."

It is a shame that I do not think this musical will ever get the chance to play on bigger stages and will sadly be rarely seen so do take this opportunity to pop along and see it now while you can. It is a story that definitely deserves to be told.

Visit Show Website

Reviews by Christopher James

Wilton's

Only An Octave Apart

★★★★
57-60 Haymarket

Wonderville

★★★★
Queen Elizabeth Hall

Briefs: Bite Club

★★★
Waterloo East Theatre

A Letter to Harvey Milk - The Musical

★★★★
Southwark Playhouse

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★★★★★
King's Head Theatre Pub

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★★★★

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

San Francisco. 1986.

When Harry, an amiable but lonely retired kosher butcher fulfils a writing assignment to compose a letter to someone from his past who's dead, he writes not to his late wife Frannie but to Harvey Milk, the first openly gay political leader in California. Barbara, his young lesbian writing teacher at the senior centre is stunned. Harry's letter sets off a series of life-changing events that neither could have foreseen.

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