Duddy Kravitz comes home for musical apprenticeship

Photo by Barbara Moser.

Duddy’s back and it looks like, finally, he will make the Kravitz family proud.

With a revised script, a fresh set of Broadway-style songs, first-class production staff, and some of Canada’s leading actors, the latest version of Mordecai Richler’s most famous novel has “hit potential” written all over it.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz opens June 7 for a three-week run at the Segal Centre, 5170 Côte Ste. Catherine.

Expectations are high for this version, with new songs by eight-time Academy Award-winning American composer Alan Menken (featured on our cover) and lyrics by David Spencer. It is directed by Austin Pendleton, who worked on a 1987 musical version with Richler. It collapsed in Philadelphia when the main investor withdrew his support.

The storyline remains the same as in the book that awakened Canada, and the world, to Richler’s talent.

In the movie version, Richard Dreyfuss made Duddy come alive.

We also met Micheline Lanctôt, who portrayed Duddy’s love interest, Yvette. She had a love relationship with director Ted Kotcheff, went off to Hollywood but returned to Montreal to act and direct in her own films.

Duddy, the Jew-boy anti-hero, is raised in the densely populated, crab-appled St. Urbain-Fairmount neighbourhood where most of the city’s Jews lived, prayed, studied, and dreamed of bigger and better – a better world here through socialism, a better world for Jews in Palestine, or a better world by making big bucks.

Duddy’s brother was the proverbial good boy, a medical student, the pride of the family. Duddy wanted to be “a somebody” — to own a piece of land. “A man without land is nobody!” his grandfather famously said.

Working as a waiter in Ste. Agathe — those of us who summered there will recognize the Castle des Monts as the hotel where Duddy served tables — Duddy meets Yvette and, though her, discovers a pristine lake.

He serves scrap dealer Samuel Cohen who came to Canada with nothing and finagled his way to wealth. Duddy is hired to produce the bar mitzvah movie for Cohen’s son Bernie, which is among the funniest sections of the script. Cohen is the teacher, Duddy the apprentice.

Duddy then uses Yvette, and money that he grabs from his best friend Virgil, to acquire the property. He famously tells Jerry Dingleman, the wheeler-dealer known in the hood as The Boy Wonder, to “get off my land.” Montreal’s Michael Rudder plays Dingleman.

It was written as satire, but the organized Jewish community at the time hated it because it exposed the seamier sides of ghetto life. It was, as the Yiddish expression goes, “a shandeh far di goyim” – an embarrassment in front of gentiles.

But the characters and images of 1950s Montreal live on. I was privileged to have played Mr. Cohen in the Yiddish version of the play, based on the screenplay, produced by the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre and directed by Bryna Wasserman in 2001. I love the story – so evocative of a time and place, with characters that bring it to life, with a wink and a smile, of course.

“The jaundice in his eye is all-inclusive,” says Pendleton of Richler’s slant on the human condition.

We met Toronto-based Ken James Stewart, who plays the impish Duddy, at Wilensky’s Light Lunch on Fairmount and Clark.

“Where else better to do this premier production than in Montreal, where it’s all based. We’re standing in Wilensky’s where the diner scenes in the movie were shot.

“We’re very happy, there’s a buzz in the room every day about this production.”

The story of Duddy “is something that many people can relate to, and why this story has stood the test of time.

“He’s somebody who has huge dreams, feels he’s not appreciated by his family. He wants land, he wants people not to think of him as a shmuck anymore.”

Ironically girlfriend Yvette, “loves him for who he is, which makes it so tragic at the end.”

George Masswohl, who plays Duddy’s dad Max, says, “It’s great to be immersed in this city and its culture, to be doing this play, and it’s a really a great adaptation of the novel.

“The music is unbelievable. With Alan Menken, you can’t miss. Fans of Menken will recognize his style for sure.

“David Spencer’s lyrics are very true to the novel as well, very evocative of the time and the place.”

Tickets start at $50. 514-739-7944 or visit segalcentre.org/buy-tickets.


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