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March 8, 2018
Review: Why ‘A Letter to Harvey Milk’ Is the Feel Good Musical We Need
Photo credit: Russ Rowland

What it’s about: Set in San Francisco in 1986, the musical centers around Harry (Adam Heller), an amiable but lonely retired kosher butcher, who enrolls in a writing class taught by Barbara (Julia Knitel), a young lesbian writing teacher, at the senior center. When Harry fulfills 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 is stunned. Harry's letter evokes life-changing revelations that neither could have foreseen.

Why you should see it: In the current political climate, a musical like A Letter to Harvey Milk can remind each of us of the importance of tolerance and understanding. Barbara and Harry both help each other deal with love and loss and in the process, they can help members of the audience bridge the ideological and political differences that exist between us for the larger good. A feel good musical, A Letter to Harvey Milk is successful due to a range of musical numbers that run the gamut of funny to moving. Whether it be the zany “Shando” or the heartbreaking “Love is a Woman,” the music by Laura I. Kramer and the lyrics by Ellen M. Shwartz, with additional lyrics by Cheryl Stern, keep the show buoyant and forward-moving. Evan Pappas’ direction is thoughtful and precise with quick scene transitions for a breezy 90-minute show. The scenic design by David Arsenault creates an expansive space in the compact Acorn Theatre and the lighting design by Christopher Akerlind creates distinct spaces and moods. The performances by the entire cast are top notch.

What could be better: The musical is shy in conflict and drama, opting for characters who are so likable that it’s hard to discern how each one grows. It’s clear the musical’s intention is to embrace the good in people, but sometimes one wishes, because of the issues the show explores, that it would dig a little deeper.

The Last Word(s): We live in a fractured, sometimes deeply desensitized world. In the era of disillusionment and dissonance, A Letter to Harvey Milk is a breath of fresh air.

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Written by: Arpita Mukherjee
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